solo time, art

The last day of July tomorrow. It has been an interesting month. My #1 partner has been a under the weather lately, so there have been a lot of solo missions in the hills. Morning stuff skiing, biking and today, a run. Up the hill I skin a ton in the winter. Managed to go non-stop, and felt really good. I'm not sure I've ever been able to do that before. I was pretty happy up top, and it's nice to get ready for ski season. Tomorrow morning, I think I'll toss in some lunges and such at the field afterwards. Winter is getting close.

Truth is though, I've changed. One might think the opportunity to go out on my own, wherever I want, as hard as I want would be a nice change. It's not. Fact is, Elaine is ridiculously strong in the mountains, if she slows me down at all it's unnoticable and unimportant, and I miss her out there. Stella and I miss her. The mountains are a little prettier, the air a little cleaner, the adventure a little purer when she is along. I'm thrilled that she is nearly off the disabled list! It's backpacking season and it's time to get our little tribe back in the hills together.

In her time off, Elaine has been getting back into drawing. A little bit of her work. The eagle and the wolf. The symbol is the Vegvisir, and Icelantic emblem that is the compass – basically, this symbol prevents the bearer from getting lost in a storm. Both literally and figuratively. We've both weathered a few of those the past couple years. The runic wording means, "kiss me, my love."

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A word about wolves

This issue, as any reader of my drivel knows, fires me up. I get quite upset, post inflamatory posts to rile people up, and then nothing comes of it.

Maybe I'll try a new approach. I'd like to share my own wolf experience. I've seen wolves twice in my life. Here is my experience:

2005: I was on my Alaska NOLS trip. It was near the end of the backpacking section, and I was wont to do, was staying up late enjoying the arctic tundra, alone, before bed. My classmates had all gone to bed and I was reading outside. I glanced up and caught motion across the ravine from me. It was ghostlike. A mother wolf and three cubs, stark white, followed across the brush. I think they caught wind of me, literally, because in a flash they were gone.

2007: I took my spring break in Yellowstone National Park with the express purpose of seeing wolves. Went to visit my old friend Kevin, but things had changed. While it was good to see him, we (not necessarily him and I – more locals he introduced me to) spent a lot of time arguing the benefits of trophy hunting and such. I, of course, not being a supporter. It's a hot item up there. Anyway, I went to the park and spent the evenings and mornings in the Lamar Valley, watching for wolves. And I saw them. My most striking memory was one cold evening, as the light was growing dim, watching them, a pack…not hunting, not fighting…but playing. Juveniles playing tag with adults, tackling them and then sprinting off across the valley. You could feel the energy, you could feel them laughing. I know it's bad to personify animals, but these were not dull, lifeless, killing machines. They were more like us than not.

A wolf is not unlike a dog. Imagine somebody shooting or trapping your dog. It's not that different. I believe the wolf is the epitome of wilderness. And I believe wilderness is something worth fighting for.

When I taught NOLS courses, I would always do a lesson on wolves. And I would conclude it by reading this story. It's about wild animals, wild places, and what happens to them, and us, when we kill them. I ask that you read it, and then ask yourself if this is something you can comfortably live with:

Thinking Like a Mountain By Aldo Leopold

image of deer: 14kA deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.

Those unable to decipher the hidden meaning know nevertheless that it is there, for it is felt in all wolf country, and distinguishes that country from all other land. It tingles in the spine of all who hear wolves by night, or who scan their tracks by day. Even without sight or sound of wolf, it is implicit in a hundred small events: the midnight whinny of a pack horse, the rattle of rolling rocks, the bound of a fleeing deer, the way shadows lie under the spruces. Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them.

My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf's job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

image of deer skull: 5kWe all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau's dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.

Boycott Idaho

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Idaho's plan for "management of it's wolf population is to reduce the number of wolves in the state from 1,000 to 150. They plan to allow hunting, trapping, aerial shooting and poisoning. Read this article, and if you don't agree with what they are doing, forward this message around. What we can do is boycott Idaho – don't visit there, don't travel there, don't ski there, don't buy Idaho potatoes, don't buy Idaho beef. That's all we can do at this point.

By contrast, Montana's wolf management plan, while still harsh, put a quota on the wolf killings this year at 220 wolves, out of an estimated population of 560. That's a 40% reduction versus an 85% reduction. Not reasonable in my book, but more reasonable. Montana is hardly wolf friendly, but they look like saints compared to the massacre that is being encouraged in Idaho.

Conversation

Setting: The boots deck at Neptune Mountaineering

Customer comes back to boot deck. A family, two kids, son and daughter. Father off looking at tents, mom needs some new hiking shoes. We size her up, get her a cool pair of shoes fit for hiking in the hills yet stylish enough to wear around town and not look like a fool. A nice balance.

We have a video on, some telemark skiing flick to pass the time. Mom asks me for advice on a good hike for the family. The kids are youngish – maybe ten – so I recommend they check out Lost Lake. Not too tough a route, nice flowers, good waterfall, cool lake for a picnic. They buy a map and the shoes. The mom goes to the kids, who are watching the video, and enthusiastically says, "hey kids, lets go on this cool hike up to the lake."

The kids start pouting. "We're watching TV. Hiking is stupid." They ask the mom how long the drive is. "About 45 minutes," she replies. The sister turns to the brother and says…"Hey, that's good – we can watch T.V. in the car while we drive."And off they go.

What have we become, and what are we becoming?

Termination dust in the north

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The continual quest for snow is leading to exploration. The snowfield that has been my before-work staple since early May is melting out quickly, so I'm trying to find another option. Into a land I've never been before, through dense pine forests and a trail that I dare-say hasn't seen a footprint in five years. Different flowers from others on the tundra.

The snowfield is big. A solid 1,000 vertical of turns which fits my criteria for a "day" of skiing, albeit most of them in the right turn direction. I did it today, getting lost a bunch, in 2.5 hours. I'll need to chop a half hour on that to make it a realistic option for before work skis. It may be worth the work, however, as I have photographic proof that even during dry years, this snowfield never totally melts out. A last remnant of the ice age. That means a lot more skiing, a true endless winter.

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I see more by continuing to ski. I've never thought about going this long, and I'm excited by the prospect of seeing the tundra turn colors on an almost daily basis. I imagine August up here will be a beautiful, dynamic month where the morning chill and the first signs of autumn will be real. I hit day 170 this morning, and I don't really know how high that figure will climb.  And while the number is a cool gauge and motivator, it wouldn't be enough to get me out of bed every morning. The skiing is, in all honesty, quite marginal now. The prospect of seeing the alpine fauna in the morning light, the lowering but still powerful creeks, or a herd of elk is, however, plenty of pull. The alpine world is the best and most vibrant place to be on earth.

I do wonder if 200 is possible? Certainly, but at somepoint these snowfields may turn into glacial ice, and there are other things to do – as fun as skiing is, I'm more stoked for a plethora of multi-day backpacking trips Elaine and I have planned for the next two to three months. I think, in all honesty, I started the season off a little too lazily to hit 200. So that's certainly a good goal for next season.

When does the calendar stop on a season? Certainly it would stop on October 31, as that was my first day skiing last year. But the criteria I prefer is based on snowpack. When one starts skiing on the new year's snow pack – i.e. it snows 12 inches on September 15, and we go skiing on the 16th…that would be a new year and the days would start fresh. However, right now I'm skiing on the remnants of snow from the 2010-2011 season, so I think it's appropriate to mark the days on this previous year. Of course, how one interprets this rule is arbitrary. For example, if it snows half an inch up high in August but I'm skiing on an old snowfield that is many feet deep below, does that count as a new snowpack? I'm not really sure – this is new ground for me.

There is another standard that used to be my signal that the new season has started – fresh snow on the flanks of the mountains west of town. These days are perhaps my favorite of the entire year and have been for a long time, since I was a kid living in Vermont. It would usually happen in September…you'd wake up and look up at Mount Lincoln, through the red and orange Maple and Ash trees…and see the upper runs of Sugarbush dusted with snow.

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Here in Nederland, it's the upper flanks of Bald Mountain, a cold night and an early morning that deliver this joy. It happens in late-August or early-September most years. Once that happens it's game on – the intervals on the bike or foot become more intense, those squats and core work in the gym more urgent. You start inventorying your equipment, figuring out what you need and what needs fixing. Then there is the stream of films – first the rock 'em, sock 'em Matchstick offering, then TGR, then Warren Miller that builds the ski frenzy to fever pitch. Somewhere in there the first big dump happens, somewhere. Berthoud, Montezuma, the Elks…and this year…I plan to be there, rock skis ready…for those first magical turns of winter.

Back in 2005 I took a NOLS course up in Alaska. It was my first one, it was life changing, and led me on a path where I eventually became a NOLS instructor myself. One day near the end of the course we were sea kayaking in Prince William Sound and woke up in the morning to see snow on the upper peaks. I learned that in Alaska they call that first snow on the peaks "termination dust." The end of summer, the beginning of autumn and winter. Termination dust in Colorado isn't too far off – less than a month possibly. But up north, where the first signs of winter hit, there is clearer evidence. In Denali National Park they woke up this morning and found the peaks with a fresh coating. Termination dust.

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Termination dust, Denali National Park, July 26, 2011