Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Big Sur, Big Rains // A loop around the Silver Peak Wilderness, Part 2

Finally finishing this up after spending time in LA, doing a trip with Dunn's Sophomores, and a personal backpacking trip with friends along the Pine Ridge Trail in Big Sur.

Thursday PM: Estrella Campground to Spruce Campground

The navigation out of Estrella was challenging, and I have to give the students a lot of credit for finding the route. There were a few use trails which led to impassable spots, and we had to explore up and down the creek to find a way. Luckily, one of the students in the other group had mentioned to us a knee-deep water crossing, which was key in helping us find the way. While I tend to prefer to navigate based on landmarks and terrain, the compass was extremely useful after we crossed the creek, and I wish I had it out sooner as it would have saved us some time. I was thankful for my students' patience and their ability to stay in good spirits. 

On this stretch of Salmon Creek Trail, we were stopped in our tracks by deadfall-- two large trees had been knocked down across the trail, making it look impassable. I tried to scout out a way around it down the hill, to no avail. Here was another lesson for me; I could have saved time by looking more closely at the deadfall first. It turned out that the trees were stable, though of course awkward to get around with a big pack. I helped them each across and many of them found that it wasn't as hard as they originally thought. 

The rest of the way to Spruce was, thankfully, very straightforward. The girls later told me that I started hiking very fast after we crossed that obstacle. I was eager to get to camp, and glad to take advantage of the downhill trail. We came upon Spruce Camp very suddenly after crossing a low creek, and walked past it to the trail junction because it seemed to come up so soon. There was no signage at this campground other than an arrow pointing to the trail across the creek and one of the students adamantly said she would make a sign there so that no one else would make that unnecessary .15-mile uphill trek. I'm not sure it happened, but it was a nice thought. 

At this point, knowing how much poison oak we'd just trampled through, I passed around some poison oak wipes for everyone to use on their face, hands, any skin that had been exposed during our hike. I haven't yet had a poison oak reaction myself, but that doesn't mean I won't. Sneaky plant, that. I'd previously used Tecnu for washing off poison oak on trips, never wipes, and I still prefer it. 

That night, during our satellite-phone check-in (the connection was awful), I learned that more bad weather was coming in, and we were to hike out early the next morning and get back to school rather than to have the planned car-camping night with the other groups. I facilitated a small closing ceremony after letting everyone know the new plan. There was some celebration by the students that there would be one less night of camping, which is to be expected with a compulsory trip, and I let them know that I regretted that they wouldn't be able to gather with the other hiking groups as planned. Sharing experiences with one another before returning to school is a very special part of trips like this, and would probably have been extra interesting for them with all the weather-related challenges we had in the beginning.

It was a very warm closing ceremony, and we got to bed early. Just before turning in for the night, I found a tick attached to my left side, explaining the strange ache I'd felt there all day. In my fatigued state, I pried the tick off ungently before even thinking to reach into the first aid kit for tweezers. Ticks have to be attached for at least 36 hours to transmit Lyme Disease, and tiny nymphal ticks are much more likely than adult ticks to stay attached for that long. Still, upon returning to town, I was glad to be prescribed a round of antibiotics (doxycycline) as a preventative measure.

Friday: Spruce Campground to Salmon Creek Trailhead

We woke for our very last morning stretch at 6AM, put out breakfast, and began to take down camp. As predicted, at 7AM, the first drops of rain began to fall and quickly escalated. We got out of camp 1.5 hours after waking, and covered the two miles in around an hour. Everyone was in relatively good spirits, which is not surprising since we were heading toward hot showers and warm, dry beds.

The last mile winding down toward the trailhead was especially lovely, the switchbacked hills covered in poppies, beautiful even with their petals closed against the rain.

There was much rejoicing as we reached the vehicles-- we were the first ones out. Soon after we arrived, a school vehicle pulled up. The trip director was in the process of evacuating an instructor for a severe poison oak reaction. By the time the evacuation happened and all the groups were out and ready to caravan, the storm had fully established its presence.

Back to School

Statistically speaking, driving is the riskiest part of most outdoor programs. The hour spent winding around Highway 1 under sheets of rain and gusts of wind required my full concentration. The students slept through it, for the most part. There were moments when it poured so hard that I considered pulling over just before they passed. I felt sweet relief upon pulling into the gravel lot back at Dunn.

The students were gathered, gear was collected, and they were dismissed at around noon. Due to the change in schedule, the post-trip clean-up which students would typically participate in was left to us instructors. Not ideal or efficient, but so these things go sometimes. Gear cleanup and storage is a vital part of all trips, and I wish the students had been able to participate in it.

Thankfully, the next day and a half were sunny and warm as we dried out the tents, laundered the sleeping bags, tested and fixed the stoves. And then we were done.

After Thoughts

I would love to return to the Silver Peak Wilderness and do this same loop on a personal trip. Some of the erosion along the trails is worrisome, but manageable. This trip was the first time I held such primary responsibility for wilderness skills and risk management, and to be honest I started out quite intimidated. I heard somewhere that a great way to learn something is to teach it. I became a backpacking instructor two years ago with only two short personal trips under my belt, and I'm continuously refining my skills and learning more about pedagogy and facilitation. This recent increase in responsibility has improved my confidence in both my outdoor skills and my leadership skills, and it's taught me that I still have a lot to learn about managing time, giving structured and unstructured lessons, and facilitation.

It's surprising how these trips seem both long and short. Something about being removed from your daily context that does funny things to time. One moment it's only beginning, and all of a sudden it's over. I look forward to the next. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Big Sur, Big Rains // A loop around the Silver Peak Wilderness, Part 1

The first trip of my outdoor work season was a backpacking trip in Big Sur's Silver Peak Wilderness with 11th grade girls from Dunn School. When I arrived at Dunn for orientation and prep, I learned that I would lead an all-female-identified group, including the faculty member, which was somewhat rare for Dunn, and solidly in my comfort zone, since I had begun my backpacking instructor career with GirlVentures. It was a welcome surprise.

Monday: Los Olivos to Forks Campground (or so we thought)

We set out from Los Olivos with the intention of doing a point-to-point hike in the Ventana Wilderness, but Big Sur received such a deluge in the days prior that two of the roads to our original trailhead were closed and the trail itself was impassable. The creek we were meant to cross had swelled enormously and was moving fast; crossing it was beyond the scope of our trip as well as objectively dangerous. This, along with the poor condition of the road we had just driven up, which another group would have to drive down with bad weather in forecast, necessitated a change of plans. As we hiked back to the trailhead, I asked the faculty member whether they had ever had to cross water like that. In past years, she said, her feet had barely gotten wet. 

We camped that first night at Santa Lucia Memorial Park Campground, setting up our tents during another bout of rain and retiring soon after dinner in the cold. The next morning was clear, thankfully, for our drive down to the Silver Peak Wilderness, where we would hike this loop:

Tuesday: Salmon Creek Trailhead to Buckeye Campground

We parked at the Salmon Creek Trailhead lot, which is a few minutes' walk south of where Buckeye Trail starts. Our goal that day was to get to Buckeye Camp, which would have us traveling 3.75 miles and climbing about 1700 feet in elevation. Needless to say, that was a challenging first-day hike, especially since we had spent the morning driving down from the Ventana Wilderness and did not start until 1:00 pm.

The girls were great about adjusting to one another's needs, whether we were dealing with physical challenges or motivational ones. We hiked as a close group, and I was thankful that I didn't have to continuously remind people that no matter what, we could only go as fast as the slowest hiker anyway. In groups where some want to go faster, I've found that oftentimes we've reached the destination later rather than sooner; people get so tired that rest breaks are longer and less efficient, and there are many more aches and pains to haunt us along the way.

We made camp at dusk, when we found a spot that, though it was not the flattest terrain, we had a kitchen with glorious ocean view. The stars that night were magnificent-- the best I saw the entire trip.

I was relieved to finally be in the backcountry after our frazzling first day. The gentler weather certainly helped, too.
The next day, we realized we had been just half a mile or so short of the actual Buckeye Camp. Though it was a lovely meadow with a picnic table and trees, most (all?) of us were glad that we stopped when we had.

Wednesday: Buckeye Camp to Lion's Den

This second day of hiking was to be our longest, with the map and trail signs telling us we'd have anywhere from 5 to 7 miles to cover that day, over varying terrain. We climbed up the rest of Buckeye Trail and headed east on Cruickshank Trail, passing one of the other groups along the way, who were doing the reverse of our loop. They warned us of thick brush, poison oak, and knee-deep water that would be on our next day's hike. We filed away that information while focusing on the miles we still had ahead of us before that night's camp.

We all began to hit our stride on this day, I think, with students showing their aptitude and interest in navigation, natural history, and traveling over unfamiliar terrain. We saw beautiful manzanitas and madrones, shrubby trees with smooth, chocolatey, surreal bark which love a little elevation and Mediterranean climes.

There were exposed trails, some of which were quite eroded from the recent rain, leading to a few instances when I passed a trekking pole back for students, or closely spotted them as they made their way down startlingly steep trail. Again, they showed their commitment to an encouraging environment and helping one another get through the experience safely.

One thing to remember when hiking across exposed, eroding trails cut into steep mountainsides: keep moving! Steadily and calmly continue forward until you reach more stable ground; taking very slow steps or hesitating will only give the ground more time to weaken beneath your weight.

Just a quarter mile or so before Lions Den Campground, on the ridge, we stopped for a snack break in the shade of the chaparral. Since it was the midway point of our trip, I took some time to revisit Leave No Trace ethics as well as the group's hopes and fears, which we had shared before the trip began.

We then descended into Lions Den Camp, which we were to share with another group from the school. Students are always so thrilled to see one another even though they've only been apart for a couple of days! We allowed the groups to spend fifteen minutes together (which instructors and faculty were also glad to spend), and then we each went back to our own camp chores for the night. It all went very smoothly.

One student from the other group was super impressed that we had gone all the way from Buckeye and made it to Lions Den just an hour or so before them-- they had started 1 or 2 miles ahead of us at Upper Cruickshank Camp. I praised our group for their efficiency in getting out of camp, typically one of the biggest challenges/time-eaters when backpacking. We took advantage of the clear evening with a post-dinner lesson, and then prepared for another early (though not quite as early) start the next morning.

Thursday AM : Lions Den Campground to Estrella Campground

We woke at 6:45 and had camp packed up (and foot care done!) by around 8:30 that morning-- another praiseworthy effort. While the group was eager to begin hiking, a few had new complaints about their packs, and I took some time to take a closer look.

It takes experience to get used to the many minute adjustments that can be made throughout the day to keep a pack comfortable, and students sometimes are not aware of how packs are supposed to fit. There are places where it's normal to experience aches and discomfort, such as around the hipbones, but any time students express pain in the back or shoulders, it's worth finding a good stopping point to fiddle with adjustable torsos and attachment points for loader straps (the straps above the shoulder that help pull the upper part of the pack closer to your back). 

Another note on pack-fitting is that when a higher-capacity pack in my size is available, I go for it-- this saves a lot of time and grief, and over-stuffing can lead to a pack no longer fitting comfortably, not to mention putting unnecessary stress on the fabric and zippers. If you have trouble getting all of your gear inside the pack the first time, it's not going to get much better even as you eat your food. It's much easier to have too much room and cinch down the pack.

The stroll along Cruickshank Trail to Coast Ridge Road was quite fast, leading us to question the trail sign stating that Lions Den was a whole mile away.

We could see the valleys all around us, and could almost make out the ocean through some haze. We stopped for a few photos. A solo hiker (the only person we encountered who was not from the school) came upon us and also warned of the thick brush along Salmon Creek Trail. I was confident that we would be fine, since it is much different to walk uphill through thick brush than charge downhill. 

As we made our way down, we could really see what they meant. Chaparral, live oak, sharp succulents, and plenty of poison oak all grew close into the trail. For those of us in the 4'11 (me) to 5'3 range, it wasn't too bad, but we really felt for our 5'11 group member, who was having to push through or duck below all the stuff growing above our heads. She assured us that she was fine. A couple of other students said "This is actually fun!" The trail was clearer as we made it to Estrella Camp, where we stopped for lunch. We were tempted to make camp there, it was so nice, but we had many hours left in the day, and the lure of a shorter hike out the next morning motivated us on. 

To be continued... 

(Wow, this post is longer than I imagined it would be, but I'm enjoying reliving the trip-- tomorrow I begin prepping for a trip with Dunn's sophomores. Hopefully I'll be able to write Part 2 before we set off. There are no photos from this trip because I ruined my old-but-good camera during my very wet and cold trip in Alaska last year, but I've acquired a new, water-resistant camera for future trips.)

Monday, February 29, 2016

Suzi the Tiny Camper

What outdoorsy person (or person tired of paying rent to absentee/neglectful landlords in unpleasantly gentrifying neighborhoods) doesn't love scrolling through #vanlife photos, reading about how people outfit their Sprinters or cargo vans, imagining what their perfect camper van would be like? Since leaving LA and spending more time outdoors, I've spent a lot of time reading articles about building sleeping and storage units in cargo vans, Honda CRVs,  and even a Toyota Echo "micro-RV." I spent a lot of time since my journey to Lander poring through Craigslist, contemplating Ford Econolines and conversion vans in various stages of repair.

And I just couldn't make the leap. I spend most of my time driving around the Bay Area and Los Angeles, and Suzi is pretty comfortable for me when I'm solo-traveling, which is often. I have quite a lot of affection for this little vehicle. She has been so good to me for the last 7 years. I was also chagrined to note that my car-restlessness falls perfectly in line with the average number of years it usually takes people to switch cars. Suzi deserves better than that! 

I'd slept with my feet in the trunk of the compact car quite a few times with the backseat folded down (October 2012 in Bishop was the first, I think), and last year I finally took out the backseat entirely (instead of just keeping it folded down) and built a platform. It's simple, sturdy enough, and only took an afternoon to build. The idea to do it was in part inspired by a setup I spied in the back of someone's Camry in Lander, but they had a shelving unit built on one side that I never did get to. 

It's no feat of construction, but I'm happy with this little platform. I only very rarely miss being able to transport more than one person at a time.

One piece of 4'x8' beech plywood. Cut like so, with a handsaw.

Corner brackets.


The piece that's at an angle is for stability, the piece that's straight is to accommodate the center console.

The legs rest on the floor, the platform rests in the frame. Lines up pretty well with the floor of the trunk.

I do not recommend using a JetBoil inside a vehicle. The windows were open and I did not burn myself or my car. I usually sleep on memory foam, but that was rolled into a backrest at that moment. 
A somewhat safer configuration.
Suzi's at 180,000 miles right now. I'm hoping to hold onto her for 20,000 more, parental disapproval and fancy vantasies be damned. Anyone else out there have the back of their sedan outfitted for sleeping? I'm sure I'll get a wagon or SUV or van or something roomier someday, but for now, Suzi suits me just fine.