Ten Favorite Photos from Autumn 2018

The experts said it wouldn’t be a beautiful autumn. The experts lied. There was work stress and a million things to pull us away from the center. But then, as always, nature pulled us back. As we move full blast into winter, a look back at the most fleeting and urgent season of them all, autumn.

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In early August, the first sign of autumn hit the high tundra on the Continental Divide. The green turned to gold and the gold turned to red.

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The closest I’ve ever been to a yellow brick road.

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Birdseye view of the valley, the divide, the impending September storm.

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Autumn moves at a blur…the most beautiful moments, the peak present in days and hours, not weeks and months.

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A remnant stand of orange in the foreground, the winter playground in the background.

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On this day, we skipped a planned workout and just went exploring on a perfect autumn mountainside. It was a good choice.

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The roller skis turned crisper, the mountains more gold, the snow on the peaks providing motivation.

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We choose not to go to traditional church on Sunday. Instead, we go to our church everyday.

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Sneaking in a late roller ski past the moose sign as a cold sleet storm rolls in behind the fog.

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And then, the world turns white, a few gold hanging on to the past.

Photos by Dan Vardamis. Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado.

Home Turns

evski1The first ski turns of the season trigger nervous tension. Regardless of how long I’ve skied, there is always a predictable self-doubt, “can I still even do this?”

The reason I bring this up, is because it’s been snowing a lot here lately. There has been a constant white cloud bank hanging over the Continental Divide. While it’s been dry and cool in Boulder and barely a flurry in Nederland, it’s been regularly snowing in Eldora village. Further west and higher up, it’s been storming even more.

After a long but fun work week helping eager customers pick out ski gear – the new snow and less-than-great 2017 winter has everybody excited for this season – it was time for Elaine and I to check out the local conditions. I went for a solo backyard skin yesterday morning before work, was surprised at how good the snow was, and made notes for today.

We decided to head up to the local backcountry haunt for today’s go around. We’ve skied many, many days at this locale, and when we were first married and lived in the caboose, it was our daily morning stop. We now live in a place where getting in a car to ski is unnecessary, so we go to the old haunt less. But we still love it as much as ever. There are so many amazing memories up there with Elaine and Stella, and it’s hard to go there for us and not miss the latter.

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Nice boot-top powder. For some reason Elaine is using a 210 cm pole!

After a lazy morning, we loaded up the truck and headed up the hill. I’m a lucky guy for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is having a father-in-law who is professional car mechanic. In addition to being an all around amazing human being, Steve is a darned good mechanic who comes across some amazing gems when it comes to all things car related. Let’s just say the “new for me, ever-so-slightly-used” set of studded snow tires we just got were a major step up from the bald beads we used last winter. Getting to the local ski hill just got a whole lot easier thanks to Elaine’s dad.

The bumpy dirt road climbed ever steeper and snowier. Wind was ripping over the hillside, the sky angry shards of snow pelting the land. This was no picture-perfect Vermont Robert Frost snow storm – this was more like Metallica belting out “Enter Sandman.” Those Christmas movies that always show snow falling straight down, everybody perfectly attired with scarves and such, looking radiant? Those images are lies. Snow almost never falls straight down here, scarves will more often than not act as a wind sock and the only look that is consistent is snot from a runny nose frozen to the cheek as the tempest blares.

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Injury put in the past, fit, motivated and beautiful.

We’ve been following a nordic training “program” this fall, complete with heart rate monitor charting and actual daily plans. It’s a definite change for us and honestly the only reason we did it was so Elaine wouldn’t go insane with boring roller ski workouts that her broken foot relegated her to this summer. Having a daily goal made the time pass more productively. And, coincidently, it has us feeling pretty good.

Despite the dork factor, the plan has taught us a lot. For optimal human performance in skiing, it’s important to train really hard, really easy, and not a lot in between. This is pretty much the opposite of what Elaine and I have done the past eight years…we’re always moving just fast enough to wear ourselves out, but probably not fast enough to get any better. And with that, we almost never rest, which in turn means the body can’t repair itself properly. After the extreme fatigue we both felt after the Expedition Amundsen-CDT-Greenland very extended adventure, this was an important lesson to learn, because we were in danger of burying ourselves for a long time to come had we not re-set and re-built.

Anyway, today called for two sets of 12.5 minute level 3 intervals, followed by three sets of 3 minute level 4 intervals. In layman terms, that’s hard followed by really fucking hard. We got through it, but let it be known that level 4 intervals while breaking trail thru a foot of snow at 11,000 feet are simply brutal. It worked out how it never works out…the last set somehow timed exactly, heroically, at the very top of the hill, like a Rocky film. That wouldn’t happen again if we tried.

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Looks like Sun Valley from a circa-1967 resort promo brochure. The double skin track is a result of the training plan and working to stay in the “zone.” Don’t worry, it’s a phase.

Work done on the up, it was time for unabashed fun back down. The shocker of the day – the skiing was good. It was deep, it was soft, and we almost didn’t hit anything. No doubt, we kept our weight back and our tips up to avoid hidden obstacles, but it was still splendid. The float, the freedom, the happiness of a powder turn rushed back after the long hiatus.

evski2It’s good to be home again.

Love and Packrafts

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The Little Blue Boat on its first river excursion back in 2008. It didn’t end well…a shallow creek bed and deadfall led to a long, swampy walk out. 

My very first foray with the sport of packrafting was back in 2007. Sore-legged and weary after the Soggy Bottom 100 mountain bike race on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, I found myself navigating a rental car through back alley streets of Anchorage on a clear, crisp fall day in search of Alpacka Packraft World Headquarters. I’d first learned about these rafts by reading magazine stories of a mystical, distant group of bike riders in Alaska who would ride along beaches and then paddle from inlet-to-inlet along the Alaskan sound, strapping their bikes to the front of the tiny rubber boats. Even then, the rawness and authenticity of these type adventures appealed to me, because it was like nothing I’d ever seen. They seemed like a warrior clan from another land. I wanted to be like them.

After scouring the internet I found the contact information for Sheri Tingey, the owner of Alpacka Rafts. Legend had it a few years earlier, Sheri built the first packraft because her son Thor needed something the cross the water-clad Alaskan tundra in the summer. Sheri sewed the boat in her garage and Alpacka was born. I traded a few phone calls with Sheri telling her I wanted one of her boats. With a wry chuckle she told me she had a factory second with a cosmetic defect at a discounted price that she could sell me.

Turns out the world headquarters of Alpacka was a cluttered garage in the home of middle-aged yet spry looking Sheri. When I arrived, Sheri was expecting me, and pulled out of a pile in the garage a shiny looking royal-blue rubber raft. She rummaged through another pile and pulled out a perfect fitting spray skirt, and had an old five-piece fiberglass paddle that she sold me for $10. Walking out of the garage with my new boat was exhilarating, a freedom similar to that felt by a child when he or she gets their first bike.

As I boarded the plane in Anchorage heading back home to Colorado, I felt a strong sense that big world of adventure had just opened up.

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The start of the 2007 Soggy Bottom 100 Bike Race and the reason I was in Alaska to pick-up that first packraft. This was simply an amazing 100-miler on the Kenai Peninsula out of the fun and quirky town of Hope, Alaska. I strongly remember the endless singletrack across the tundra and the never ending jingle of bear bells as I pedaled for 12 hours across the wilds of Alaska. Thus far, it’s is the last bike race I’ve done. 

Turns out I didn’t use that first packraft much. Winter hit early that year freezing the waterways and the next few years of my life were filled with enough chaos to make relaxing trips into the mountains to go rafting a rarity. I did do some exploring of high alpine lakes west of home, and enjoyed the novel idea of hiking to a lake and then paddling around it. I wondered if some if these lakes had ever had a boat on them. I even tried to raft a way-too-low creek connecting two alpine lakes and almost lost my neck to an overhanging tree strainer. I loosely formulated a plan to be the first person to packraft every single lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness during the next few years.

Alas, life had other plans. I ended up selling that packraft to a guy in Norway to fund a trip to meet my eventual wife in Ireland. It was a worthwhile sacrifice: we ended up getting engaged after a tipsy night in Gallway and have been life partners ever since. In a  weird way, that Alaskan born packraft made that possible. It was barter to get the girl.

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First paddle in the Blue Boat on Lake Isabelle. 

In the past few years Elaine and I have seen enough Banff Mountain Film Festival-style clips featuring packrafts to instill a serious case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) in us. Our adventures seem puny compared to the unique, irreverent and quirky hike/raft, bike/raft, ski/raft excursions done by Luc Mehl and Roman Dial. These are the people we look up to, the people who make us dream bigger, folks creating adventures that are incredibly unique and authentic.

When Elaine and I came back from Greenland we were flat broke. Fortunately we were able to find jobs immediately upon return at the old gear shop we used to work at, and were able to get ourselves past the Raman noodle stage and into the pasta-and-a-decent-sauce stage fairly quickly. A lot has changed at the shop since we worked there last: the Little Red Lighthouse grew into the Great Grey Bridge. Synchronously, through a major remodel, a mostly new staff and reinventing its image, the store quietly started selling Alpacka Packrafts.

Alpacka had left distant Anchorage years earlier for a more business friendly factory deep in southwestern Colorado. The business simply outgrew Sheri’s garage. Ten years ago, when I mentioned packrafts to people I would get blank stares back. In 2018, almost all outdoor enthusiasts are familiar with packrafts and many people own them. It’s still a relatively small, niche sport, but it’s getting more popular exponentially.

The boats changed too. Instead of an oval they now had some shape that helps them cut through water better. The old packrafts required a substantial pack load on the bow to prevent the front end from jutting out of the water. The new ones are more balanced and handle better. Whereas the old rafts basically did a 45° rotation on every paddle stoke, the new ones track better than expected for a one-person raft with no rudder or keel. Features like cargo fly storage, thigh straps and removable spray decks have turned the early simple models into a game of “Pimp My Packraft.”

On our first day back at the shop we stumbled upon a packraft clinic accompanied by a tempting offer designed to get poor gear shop employees into a boat. It was slightly irresponsible, but we took the plunge and ordered rafts, from none other than Sheri’s son Thor, the recipient of Sheri’s first sewn boat. I ordered the same (but quite different) model as my first boat I picked up at that Anchorage garage: the Yukon Yaak. Besides the fact that it’s the right size for my six-foot tall frame, I like the name…the Yukon and my time there evoke strong memories for me. Elaine, who is 5’6″, ordered the smaller Alpacka model.

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The yellow and red dreamboat pack rafts.  

And then we waited. Six weeks to be exact, while the boats were created per our specs. I ordered mine in a bright yellow color – I figure it will look good on blue and grey glacial rivers with snow capped peaks behind, while Elaine got a shiny bright red boat. Elaine looks good anywhere, but the red boat will certainly compliment her well! We waited and worked and waited. And then finally, we got a notice of “package shipped and delivered.”

When we got home the first thing we did was rip open the packages to examine our new boats. They looked better than we imagined, and the folks at Alpacka tossed a calendar and some hats into the box for good measure. We didn’t get to bed until 1 am that night – too excited – but when we did the dream of floating down arctic rivers danced in our heads. In a way, packrafts have played a big role in our relationship thus far, and as such I can’t help but think they will play a big role for us as our relationship and adventures continue to progress. It’s time to fulfill that giddy excitement felt walking out of Sheri’s garage more than a decade ago.

But before all that, we need to practice…a lot. As such, to the lakes we go…

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Practice time on Lost Lake, our neighborhood lake. 

The end of summer’s peak, the beginning of autumn’s nudge.

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Moody weather marks the end of summer’s peak at 8,800 feet above sea level.

Something happens this time of year. Perhaps it’s the subtle shift in the sun’s position in the sky, or the occasional morning in the high 40’s and not the low 50’s. Whatever it is, early-August marks the beginning of the change.

In modern western society summer begins June 21 and ends September 21. Around here, those numbers mean little. While June 21 feels like summer in earnest – the endless daylight, everything blooming, the insects and birds in full flight – late September is the heart of autumn here, not the beginning.

In late September the aspen trees are in their full regalia, donning their yellow caps. The mornings are crisp, and with few exceptions the high peaks have had at least one blanket of snow to cover the tundra and talus. Usually that snow melts off before real winter hits a month later, but there is no confusion about what season late September is here. It’s fall, the most beautiful and fleeting season there is.

In pagan societies, early August marks the halfway point between the summer solstice and the fall equinox. The pagans had a name for this time of year – Lughnasadh or Lammas. It marked the beginning of the harvest season, when the wheat and crops were ready to be picked.  Pick now, for the turn towards cold is eminent.

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Dim evening light in the forest makes the river smooth.

In nature, the first evidence of the change can be found by looking toward the ground, at the ferns.  Aspens get all the glory, but the ferns lead the way. When the ferns go, a cold night – and the aspens – are not far behind.

There is a little hike near our home that loops underneath a pine and fir covered mountain. A stream runs thru the valley, and along this trail, where the cooler mountain air descends to the stream, there are perpetual cold spots. In the summer, one is likely to bump into a moose or a rabbit in these places, both seeking refuge from the baking heat of the day.

A few days ago on our walk, we saw our first yellow fern of the year. And then a little further on, in the very coldest spot in the entire valley, another and another.

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The first yellow ferns of the year.

The ferns know. Another autumn has almost arrived. The season to saunter in golden leaves and climb frosty mountain peaks is around the corner.

Energy

energy1Energy.

Without it, there is nothing. With it, anything is possible.

When Elaine and I got back from the land of ice and snow – ironically named Greenland – our energy fuel tank was empty. Two years of living in motion, a never-stopping pace, covering more than 5,000 human powered miles, left us drained and done when the rescue helicopter touched down on a small dirt patch in Tasiilaq, Greenland.

Finding the motivation to do anything since then has been challenging. On our days off from work, we’ve holed up in the cabin, done the necessary workouts to stay in shape, eaten a lot of fruits and vegetables and made the most concerted effort in the 8 years of our marriage to take the foot off the gas.

Like a well that is drained, but then not used for awhile, the energy is filling back up. It was a slow return at first, frustratingly slow, because while patience is a virtue it’s not one of our strengths. And waiting for life to happen isn’t something that comes naturally to us. We don’t really believe in dumb luck and fate, as we have found hard work and vision tends to create better results. Waiting is tough.

The motivation to train and play hard in the mountains is returning, but more importantly, the spark that creates new ideas and dreams has come back. At this point in my life, fitness is a fairly simple, predictable game. Work hard and rest enough to get the desired results. But the dreams and ideas of ways to make a better living, feel fulfilled and adventure further and deeper, those are something new, or at least a continuation of what was born and planned on the trail and across the snow.

There is a realization that what was good enough for us before is not good enough for us now. Quite honestly, we’re worth more than that. There is something about walking 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada that makes you realize anything is possible, that there is a better world out there and that going back to that “other” world isn’t enough. It’s not living up to potential.

This is all very vague talk – the kind that scares mothers unnecessarily – but it’s intentionally so. With the return of energy comes the return of ideas, and now, with the new realization that anything is possible, the determination to put it into action. But the ideas need more flushing, and then – action.

There was a lot of energy in the mountains today. We decided to go back to a familiar haunt, the trail to the Continental Divide, a geographical vortex of energy. We live close to it, but today we needed to go right to the source. We decided to take the late shift, the sunset view. The early bird gets the worm, but around here everybody is the early bird. At some point, early bird turns into night hawk, and on Colorado trails, things are trending rapidly to the latter. So we decided to gamble and head up as everybody else was heading down. It worked out well.

energy2From the get-go, I could tell today was different from the past two months, or even last week. When we moved in the mountains last week, Elaine did great, but I could tell there was some hesitation in her step. Not today. There was pep, lightness and strength to her movement, ever up rocks and roots into thinner and thinner air. Elaine was born and raised in these mountains, and like the prodigal son in “Legends of the Fall,” she didn’t leave, but instead explored them even deeper. She gets stronger every year, but more than that, watching her I get the sense that she is becoming one with these mountains. She always had a comfort in the mountains, but after the past few years, something is different. She has become a part of the spirit of the wilderness.

We rose rapidly through the pine forest, hopping across rocks to cross streams, gliding up switchbacks, the heart and legs working hard but comfortably. They know the routine by now, and smile when they get to be part of it.

We rose up a steep bench, the mountains exploding ahead. The setting sun lit our faces, providing warmth and more energy. We crossed onto Alta Flats. Alta means higher, and it’s also Elaine’s middle name. In the darkest time of her life, when she spent all her time inside, fighting the demons, we think her spirit decided to occupy this higher spot surrounded by granite, snow-capped mountains, waiting for her to return. And when her physical self did, that spirit sang.

energy4The few hikers we saw on the lower trail were wrapping up the day. We were alone, exactly how we like it, two hearts in a big, wild place. Past Alta Flats, the trail rises again, the krummolz shrinks and we are at that magical place: timberline.

A friend of mine once told me, “there are no bad days above timberline”. To me, there is no place on earth with more energy and beauty than the land above the forest. The thin air, the angular light, the crisp breeze and the emergence of near vertical mountains around and above brings me more happiness than almost anything.  And when things are impossibly complex, the alpine brings some sense of simplicity and peace.

With that joy created by landscape, we climbed up. The steady rhythm is fueled by that happy energy, like moving from 85 octane gas to 93. Just a little bit better. We conversed with marmots and watched elk gallop in the valley below as a cool wind graced our bodies. And then, with a final few steps, we reached the summit, the Continental Divide. We checked our watches. While we weren’t trying to hit a certain time, there is a satisfaction reading the numbers. Pretty good, and there is a lot of room for improvement. The energy is returning.

energy5Ahead of us, the Pacific. Behind the Atlantic. All around, 12,000 and 13,000 foot peaks rise in every direction. The wind attacks from the north, the direction of legends, and we feel something different. This is no gentle summer wind. It has a slight bite. I have not felt that bite since spring. It is a bite of coming change.

We continue up, to a lake that sits impossibly at the very top of the Divide. We settle next to that lake, looking at remnants of the last ice age, sometimes talking, sometimes quiet, remembering the past, dreaming of the future. Stella used to love this spot, and it brings back memories. But then I remember that she is playing in the high mountains with the spirits of all our loved ones who have gone before. In time, we will join them. But not just yet.

energy3The evening is growing late. On the down, we will be more cautious, as Elaine is still healing from her broken foot. Better to get down five minutes slower intact than aggravate things. The wind picks up even more, and as Elaine walks out onto her cliff and looks over her domain and home of the past 28 years since her birth, the cold wind blasts into us, energizing the land and making us smile. No doubt about it – it is a wind of change, of a returning autumn.

There is nowhere to go but down. On the descent we can’t stop talking about ideas and dreams. We don’t talk much on the uphill – that’s the business end of things. But on the way down – that’s the time to dream. The shadows grow long, evening colder, the sun drops under the western mountain range. We glide through the woods effortlessly and happily, not stopping till we return to our two-decade old pick-up truck just as the first stars shimmer in the Rocky Mountain night sky above.

energy6Finally, energy – the ingredient that fuels anything great – has returned.