Thursday, October 13, 2005

Lightning flashes

Lightning flashed.
The tent's aluminum-pole
skeleton shimmered.
Knobby toes at the far end
of my legs that lay flat on the
sleeping bag stood starkly
outlined against the pale tent
wall. They twitched slightly.
So did the hands that
clutched Agatha Christie's
witch-inhabited mystery novel
``Pale Horse'' against my
A soft rumble rolled down
the granite ridge to the east. It
sounded faintly hollow, like
an oak chair tipping onto the
maple floor of a vast and
distant castle hall.
Within seconds the rumble
built to a crescendo, and
chair, castle and known world
crashed around my ears.
Lids squeezed over bulging
eyes. Hair stood on end. An
impulse to scream into the
night swept over me.
More lightning crackled.
More thunder hammered
across my head and
shoulders. Rain hammered
the tent, too, and marble-
sized drops skittered from the
fabric into the night.
But I lay still, except for
twitching some.
Why, the worst that could
happen would be^...
Stormy thoughts occurred
to me that night in the Eagle
Cap Wilderness Area, about
6.1 miles from Wallowa Lake,
at the edge of Six Mile
I'd been on the trail since
Sunday and walked about 64
miles already.
My ride, fondly named
Darlene's Shuttle Service, had
dropped me at the gate near
the top of Minam Hill, about
10 miles east of Elgin on Ore
gon Highway 82, at 10:30 a.m.
When I reached Wallowa
Lake, I'd call and she'd re
trieve me. So, with no vehicle
waiting for a week at a
trailhead, I started the hike
with an unfettered mind.
Well, not quite.
I expected to encounter
SOME natural adversity along
the way. And several normal
misgivings nagged at my
head, such as: Will the food
last? What if a bear takes it
away from me? Will the stove
work? What if a tent pole
breaks? Will the trail be open?
What if I get an infected blis
ter or twist an ankle and can't
walk? What if a tree falls on
Strolling down the first part
of the hike, I told myself to
RELAX and put silly fears
Besides, as Harry Roberts
said in his small book ``The
Basic Essentials of Backpack
ing,'' you don't have to be
smart to hike successfully.
He said ``attention to detail''
means much more than intel
ligence on the trail. Roberts
also said hikers should ``roll
with the punches'' and ``enjoy
the rain.''
Clearly, with some serious
concentration, I'd be all right.
My motto became: Relax
and pay attention to detail.
Later, beneath a 90-degree
sun, I pondered a less ideal
istic view of the great out
doors, however. In one of Sue
Grafton's mystery novels, de
tective Kinsey Millhone said
something like, ``Nature runs
uphill, dirty and sweaty and
By 3:30 p.m., sweat had
plowed furrows through the
dust on my face and neck. A
sweat-soaked shirt clung to
my back. Pants and socks
sagged. The pack's hip belt
had rubbed raw patches in my
flab. And, somehow defying
gravity, sodden shorts had
inched upward and
threatened to strangle me.
So, maybe 10 miles from
Minam Hill, I quit for the day.
Half an hour later, the
camp stood beside the river
and a small rainbow trout
danced on the end of the fly
line. Clearly, detective
Millhone's view of nature
missed an important clue.
After dinner, while sipping
tea, I discovered a blister on
each little toe. I'd started out
with Moleskin, a soft felt ma
terial with stickum on the
back, covering those very
blister-prone spots, too.
Would I be able to walk on
Monday? Many miles to go,
after all. A sign near the wil
derness boundary had said
``Reds Horse Ranch 17,'' and
``Minam Lake 43.'' And
Wallowa Lake would be 17 or
18 miles more.
Bravely I battled negative
thoughts. Then I snipped the
blisters with the Swiss Army
Knife's scissors and painted
them from the small bottle of
Second Skin. They stung like
the dickens.
The next morning I covered
the blisters with new Mole
skin and slipped on a pair of
thin double-layered nylon
socks, called blister-resisters,
beneath the light woollies.
Lo, the feet smiled when
they hit the trail at 7:15 a.m.
And, with frequent rest stops,
they smiled when they
stopped a mile short of Reds
at 3:46 that afternoon.
And I soon smiled, too.
After shucking the pack and
sweaty clothes beside the
green water, I carefully _
paying attention to detail _
took a running cannonball
leap from the bank.
Cold, clear water washed
over me. Nearly took my
breath away. Huff-puff. Spurt-
spew. Absolutely relaxed.
But, alas, on Tuesday that
laid-back attitude suffered a
setback. Between Reds and
the North Minam River, about
a zillion fallen trees blocked
the trail. I labored from 7:10
a.m. to 3:30 p.m., including a
half-hour for lunch and two
coffee breaks, to cover the
11.8 miles to Rock Creek.
After another river plunge
and more fishing near a green
buttercup-dotted meadow, I
wrestled with the prospect
battling deadfall all day
Then, while reading Chris
tie's novel with my headlamp,
I experienced a revelation.
The vicar's wife, Mrs. Dane
Calthrop, told the hero of the
book, ``Always envisage the
worst. You've no idea how
that steadies the nerves. You
begin at once to be sure it
can't be as bad as you im
Wow. I immediately
blended the idea with my
``RELAX'' motto. Relax, pay
attention to detail and expect
the worst.
At the absolute worst, the
14.6 miles of trail upstream
from Rock Creek to Minam
Lake would have a deadfall
every five feet.
It worked. After clawing
and stumbling through the
first clump of fallen lodgepole
pine and spruce trees early
Wednesday morning, I
laughed out loud. The next
barrier lay at least 100 yards
away. My worst fears would
never come true. Then the
deadfall almost completely
ended after 81/2 miles, at
Trail Creek. ...
Thursday's storm sur
rounded me after I left Minam
Lake, crossed Lake Basin and
camped beside the West Fork
of the Wallowa River.
Lightning flashed and thun
der crashed. I lay in the
muggy tent on top of the
sleeping bag and watched
twitching toes outlined
against the taught pale nylon.
Then, again taking control,
I relaxed and envisaged the
worst: lightning could strike
the tent and leave one strip of
curled, burnt bacon-like
gristle smoking on the pine
Boy, I sure felt better and
immediately fell into a dream
less sleep.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Hanford Reach

Two things appear certain.
First of all, when you find
walnuts beneath a tree, it's a
walnut tree.
So, those big, old dead
looking trees in the flat along
the Columbia River across
from the old Hanford site are
probably walnut trees.
From a distance on Sunday
they looked like locust trees,
with their dark, rough bark
and their brittle-looking
naked limbs.
Yet, as Sadie the Dalmatian
and I shuffled along beneath
them, I saw the tell-tale clue:
a scattering of dried walnuts.
Many of the broken nuts lay
on the ground in half shells.
But they were walnuts.
The trees have stood there
for many decades, and some
are gonners. Dead bark peels
from limbs and trunks. Some
may perk up in another few
weeks, sprout leaves and pro
duce more walnuts to scatter
on the ground.
And second of all, my
coyote call won't be
answered. Not soon, and not
by a self-respecting coyote.
I saw one coyote after we
zig-zagged for about four
miles from the locked gate to
the cliffs and ate lunch across
the river from the reactors.
The locked gate, by the
way, is about nine miles up a
graveled road from the
Ringold Fish Hatchery,
At the gate, we met three
adults, two kids and a dog. As
I donned my daypack and
slung the binoculars and cam
era bag on my shoulders, they
moved off the road toward the
hills on the right. I never saw
them again. Or anyone else.
Sadie and I followed the
road for one-quarter mile. It leads to a
second locked gate in about
three miles, but we left it near
the flat, with the large, dark
trees in the distance.
High, rugged cliffs on the
right felt dramatic, and the
flat stretched from the road
for several hundred yards to
the river. Looking upriver,
with the rugged white cliffs
towering above the road, the
flat extended for half a mile to
the steep ridges.
Our route followed me
andering game trails near the
river. Beyond the flat, yellow
bells and wild parsley
sparkled in the green grass.
A zillion deer tracks
marked the hard-packed
trails, and geese, pelicans,
cormorants and mallards
preened on the river.
Sounds carried in the near
silence, too. Did voices filter
down from the cliffs? Nope.
Geese honked from so high
above the cliffs that I could
barely see them without the
Once past the flat, we fol
lowed a game trail up a
cliffside overlooking the river.
The trail made sharp ascents
and descents and clung pre
cipitously to the cliffside.
I wore no jacket, but sweat
dampened my clothes. I drank
often from the tube to a new
CamelBak Unbottle water bag
stuffed into the daypack. The
100 ounces of water in the
bag weighs 6.91 pounds.
It's so convenient that I
sipped and forgot Sadie.
Then, from high on a cliff, she
looked down at the sky blue
ness of the river and moaned.
She wanted water. I
searched in vain for her cup
in the daypack. So, I squeezed
the tube and water ran into a
binocular lens cap. Three
slurps cleaned it, so I refilled
it until she walked away.
We left the gate at 11:16
a.m. When we reached the far
cliffs, beyond the overlook at
the second gate on the road, I
guessed the time at 3 p.m.
I carried three Cliff bars for
lunch, and we worked our
way down the steep banks,
over wide slippage crack in
the earth near the river. Sadie
splashed into water up to her
chest and drank a long time.
I basked in the sunshine,
and we shared a Chocolate
Chip Clif bar.
As we climbed to the bluff,
the first coyote watched from
50 yards. When it moved, I
whistled. Maybe it would stop
for a photo? No way.
We climbed, and a coyote
sang. Off to the right. I froze.
Such a perfect sound. Intense,
pure notes.
It sat 30 yards away, its
head, shoulders and front legs
visible beside a big sage bush.
It stretched its nose to the sky
and sang again. A chill ran
down my neck and back.
I touched the camera, but it
had the wide angle lens.
So, I sang my coyote song.
Wow! The songdog
bounded four feet straight up.
It hit the ground and puffs of
sand spurted behind its feet.
Sadie's tail drooped. Her
head hung between her front
paws. And she blushed.
Darn critics.
We didn't mosey back. We
climbed the highest ridge, and
I scouted the quickest route
though the canyons.
We reached the gate at 5:36
p.m. Although Sadie's reac
tion to my coyote song stung
a bit, I bought her a snack on
the way home.
A very small one.