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After 3 years, I haven’t made it back to Costa Rica yet.  I wanted to go back the next year, then the next, and- well, I’m too curious. I wander too much and am easily distracted by new adventures.

But I can tell you why I really want to go back.  It’s not the adventure travel activities and resorts, because my friend and I avoided those like the plague when we traveled to the Pacific coast in 2014. It’s the quiet lodges at refuges where the owners and communities are working to save what is left of the rich wildlife in the country.

This post is about the first leg of our trip, from Liberia to our lodging near the Cloud Forests of Monteverde and Santa Elena. Our trip started in Seattle, with clear skies as we flew over sleeping Mt. Rainier. Mt. St. Helens rises above the clouds in the background, a stubby reminder of what happens when our Cascade stratavolcanoes decide they are too symmetrical and lovely.

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Our travel plans led us to the smart choice of flying into Liberia.  Sure, we drove out past 40 kms of road construction leaving town, with men mixing and pouring concrete from wheelbarrows in 90F heat.  But after we flew out of San Jose at the end, I would recommend Liberia instead.  At the very least, Liberia wouldn’t be hosting the Costa Rica vs. Paraguay soccer game at the national stadium as San Jose was when we were passing through.

We had a stopover in Dallas both ways.  Don’t do this.  Or at least, if you must, give yourself about 4 hours to lay over in this airport.  We almost missed our connection on the way back, making a Chariots of Fire dash in our socks out of security and reaching the gate within a minute of closing – and this after our flight landed 2.5 hours before.

I can’t remember the airline we flew, but it doesn’t matter: the leg room and service are minimal on all of them when you’re in economy class. The only weirdly wonderful, throwback service I’ve experienced is from Air North going to the Canadian Arctic. Expensive to fly, but they have real food, free wine and capuccino and hot, moist towels before and after meals. Oh, and leg room.

I flew with an awful respiratory infection.  A doctor sent me with prescription nasal spray and Sudafed to avoid rupturing my full eardrums.  It was brutal to clear my ears, and the second takeoff felt like a near disaster.  My right ear has had a slight ringing ever since.

We landed in the early evening in Liberia, taxied to our nearby hotel, and sat on the veranda eating fruit and drinking juice in soothing warm air,  listening to night creatures chirping.  A gecko appeared on the wall, making an amazingly loud sound.

The next morning didn’t start out as a dream vacation. We gathered our rental 4WD, after finding the price skyrocketed over the quote with insurance coverage.  Since an automatic was twice the price as a manual transmission, we got the manual. This meant I was doing all the driving because Kim doesn’t drive a stick and that’s all I’ve ever owned.

The Korean SUV was a true Rent-A-Wreck; the suspension was shot by a thousand tourist yahoos and the air conditioning died within 10 minutes.  We kept the windows shut to keep out dust from the 40 km of aforementioned road construction.  That pretty much cooked us.

Then we took a couple wrong turns.  The first wasn’t too bad, but the second was a wrong turn out of Cañas onto 142, instead of continuing to 145.  People complain about the road to Monteverde, but they’re talking about 145.  The connector between was a steep, bone jarring, unsigned route.  The scenery was gorgeous and it was the type of lonely I like.  Kim- well, between no signs and bouncing around on lousy suspension in a crappy 4WD with no air conditioning, she was understandably losing patience.

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Kim, taking a much needed break from the hot, suspensionless SUV on the road to Monteverde.

2222014_sharetheroadThe upside of the drive was that we weren’t lost, and we saw one cause of decline of the resplendent quetzal, a charismatic bird everyone going to Monteverde Cloud Forest wants to see:  a fragmented travel corridor between the mountains and the sea. Cattle ranches have denuded forest, leaving flying quetzals vulnerable to winged predators.

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In the middle of nowhere appeared an “Info Center”- with no facilities or people to give information.  Had to stop for the picture, anyway.

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A sign! The speed limit is the funniest one- at that speed, our vehicle would disintegrate.

We finally made it to Cabinas Capulin.  It was a little hard to find someone to check us in: the lodging operation is operated on a restored portion of a working dairy operation. They, like others, are adding ecotourism to their portfolio to weather the uncertainties of farming and to benefit from local tourism.  They’re not as connected as some, so we had to set up our own guide reservations in the Cloud Forest Reserves, which require certified guides.

 

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Our cabin was small and comfortable, with great deck and views.  The wood in the cabins was from fallen trees that can no longer be harvested because they’re endangered.  We learned on the trip that wood is poached along with exotic animals and birds from tropical forests.

The view from the deck was filled with lush, beautiful trees with birds fluttering everywhere.  The family built trails as the jungle began to restore itself, but clearly, some trees had been there awhile.

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We wandered the trails the first day, and I met my first strangler fig.  These tropical plants earned their name by their survival tactic:  they begin to grow in the canopy of a live tree, drop roots to the ground, slowly surrounding the host until they shut it down and become a tree of their own.

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The Capulin strangler fig was on one trail, and on another, enormous ant mound that would be dwarfed by the underground complex and satellite mounds we couldn’t see.  A parade of leaf cutter ants marched along the trail, bounty on their backs.  The leaf pieces are not for their dinner table, but to feed the fungus they farm underneath the dirt. Awesome video of these ants is at Deep Look on YouTube.

 

leafcutterantsThus my first view into the complex, interconnected world of the rainforest:  an environment where any creature that plows the soil and recycles organic important is absolutely critical.  Even a soldierly group of ants with a labyrinthine underground world.

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Emerald Toucanet

We saw other birds here, including an emerald toucanet and pale-billed woodpecker, and came upon the other ubiquitous feature of Costa Rican tourist areas:  the zipline. Cabinas Capulin has a small one, which we did not avail ourselves, but up the road is apparently the Big Daddy of ziplines, and an aerial tram.  We passed.

cabinas_palebilledwoodpeckerCabinas Capulin was really our jumping off point to Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves, which I’ll cover in the next post.  Suffice to say, it is an inexpensive place to stay, and a coworker recommended it when we couldn’t get into the Ecolodge San Luis, a branch of University of Georgia. And Cabinas was a secluded, relaxing place to be after our rather inauspicious start.

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Trigger warning:  

This entry isn’t for everyone.  My horse dies.  His downfall and demise was a learning experience, but not really for the faint of heart.  It’s really meant for friends, family, and people who can face up to how we as humans can’t leave well enough alone. It’s a tribute to a good horse and a plea for us to do better by animals.

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The first peregrine falcon I’ve seen here arrived on a terrible day in a terrible year. This bird is probably just chasing thousands of snow geese that arrived in my valley. I’m thinking it’s a portent of change- at home, and nationally, no matter how the destructive and polarizing presidential election turns out.

The words for horse parts are an exercise in medieval language.  Middle English, German, French.  Fetlock, pastern, cannon bone, croup, coronet, hock.  Navicular hails from Latin.

While equine anatomical terms are not intuitive, the words that describe what we’ve done to horses through breeding are encased in a fortress of acronyms:  HERDA, HYPP, SCID, GBED, MH, PSSM1, JEB1 and 2, WFFS.  And on and on.

And then there is the apparently hereditary disease that took out Tigger- renamed from DSLD (Degenerative Suspensary Ligament Desmitis) to ESPA (equine systemic proteoglycan accumulation). Researchers needed new alphabet soup when they learned that the dropped rear pasterns we see in these horses are the symptom of something happening throughout the body.

These diseases can be vanquished in a single generation, of course: we just wouldn’t breed the ones that have the bad genes. But that requires clear-eyed commitment to animal health. Breeders have always come up with sometimes bizarre and certainly unscientific rationales for their programs. I’ve heard said a good stallion can “fix” a problem mare, something calling attention to the need for biology education. Sterilizing mares and gelding stallions means loss of income.

And show ring judges can actually select for defects, like the HYPP gene passed on by one stallion to over 55,000 foals.  Halter class judges gave high scores to the huge muscle on Impressive, which resulted from a problem in muscle cells that caused unregulated muscle contractions. Since breeders cross fathers and daughters, foals with two defective genes resulted, and those would experience paralysis and seizing up of their diaphragm under exercise, sometimes suffocating them.

The Impressive line was worth so much in the show ring that the American Quarter Horse Association only reluctantly admitted the problem years after it appeared. Today, if I told Tigger’s breeder that he had DSLD, apparently heritable, I doubt that they would change a thing.

Tigger was always different- suddenly growing to 17 hands, an abnormally large size for a Quarter Horse.  He had a flat croup like a Thoroughbred and big wide chest.  A new vet came on Thursday because no one else was available when he hit crisis stage. She made a common mistake after reading his file describe a Quarter Horse. She came in the barn and headed straight for my other horse’s stall. “I looked at Tigger and thought he was a draft, not a Quarter,” she said.  Everyone does. At six feet, I at least had the leg length to ride him.

It wasn’t just Tigger’s size that made him different.  On the positive side, he had a quiet, cheerful temperament, learned quickly, and was just a little lazy.  He has never done a bad thing to me.  I trained him myself, and he would respond to light rein, light leg, and voice.

He was a comeback kid. As a young foal housed in an airtight and humid show barn intended to keep its residents free of that unattractive winter coat, he developed one respiratory infection after another. When another boarder told me to throw him outside and found me a 5 acre pasture for lease, he healed, and never again got sick.

Tigger developed a rare odontogenic tumor that became an experiment in the effectiveness of bleomycin at WSU Veterinary Hospital, and then a surgery.  He pulled out.

But he was never going to pull out from this one.  It’s fatal for all horses. He and I, along with two vets, have wrestled with it as he has progressively faltered, stabilized at a reduced level, then faltered again. I knew this year was likely to be his last.

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The leg that got a diagnosis and finally gave after it couldn’t support the other one. Fourteen months later, that left hind fetlock was nothing like you see here.

With DSLD, their suspensory ligaments turn brittle like old rubber bands and start to give.  Their hocks straighten and drive pressure to the fetlock, and the fetlock drops.  The “good” left hind you see in the picture above turned large and hard as the pastern angle became more horizontal.  And then the crisis in the other foot occurred because it couldn’t compensate anymore.

The vet was due 4 pm on Thursday, but one crisis after another delayed her.  She arrived after dark, too late to do anything but call it, hand out a sheet with numbers for pickup services, and schedule the euthanasia for Friday afternoon.  She injected Tigger with a morphine-like drug to help get him through the next 24 hours.

Friday morning involved macabre calls to pickup services. Their voicemails tell you to leave a message with “TriCounty Dead Stock Services” and “Rawhide”.  They all called back right away, but not a one would pick up that day. They didn’t want their drivers stuck in our notorious Friday traffic on the interstate. I decided that I could manage a carcass over the weekend far better than I could deal with the episodic bouts of pain Tigger was experiencing.  The clinic told me how to deter coyotes over the weekend.

The hours dragged on, and the vet was delayed again.  I just kept feeding Tigger, carrots and apples and rich green alfalfa. I cut him fresh grass.  I gave him bute paste and powder, probably enough to kill his kidneys over time, but enough to get him through this day.

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A relatively okay moment on the last day.

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This is what hurt looks like.

The vet finally arrived, confirmed the bad foot was swelling and it was definitely time, to reassure me most likely. I knew. We led him to the lawn, she sedated him, put in a catheter, and some minutes later, when he was dozy, she hooked up two big blue syringes of relief. He dropped very suddenly, took two breaths- and peace. Finally, peace. No pain. The horse everyone loved for his superb temperament and affection toward people was finally free.

Throughout the long history of human domestication of horses, our understanding of their behavior has been fogged by cultural filters and biases. I was always told that a horse should never see his fallen buddy- which is a little stupid, if you think about it. In the wild, no one covers their eyes and leads them away when a herd mate dies. But I believed it.

I was surprised when my vets said that instead of sedating Larkey and keeping him in the barn, I should be prepared to lead him out to see the body. He would get closure, they said. Most horses sniff their buddy, then move on to eat grass. Sometimes they nibble an ear.

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But when you are herd mates for 19 years, that’s not always how it works.  Larkey didn’t want to leave the area, so I had the vet assistant hold him while I wrote a check.  After the truck left, he wanted to graze in the area, but would pull when I tried to lead him toward the barn.  I needed to cover Tigger as the afternoon was waning, so I pulled Lark into the barn.  As I dragged out tarps, he started to cry.  I put him in Tigger’s stall, hoping that would help.  I could hear him crying again.  Then came the bang of the stall door slamming into the wall as he flipped the latch and blew out of the barn.  He made a lap around the lawn, screaming, then skidded to a stop by his fallen brother.  I didn’t want him to bolt, so I waited and watched as he stood sentinel for a few minutes, then suddenly pulled the tarp from Tigger and started nudging his legs.

That was enough for me.  I brought apples and got a halter on him.  He dug in and wouldn’t budge, so we stayed there until dusk and cold fell. Suddenly, Larkey’s head dropped, and we trudged disconsolately toward the barn in the dark.

I hope someday we will do better as people. I hope we will stop playing God or Dr. Frankenstein, breeding animals for one trait or another, and ignoring the whole and the healthy.  I hope we will stop lying to ourselves that inbreeding is okay, blaming animals for genetic defects, and staying the course when we shouldn’t.

For now, it’s about getting Larkey past this, finding him a new normal in a smaller herd of only one horse and one person. And getting myself past the terrible loss of the best and kindest horse I’ve ever known. I’ll send a donation and card to Dog Mountain in Vermont, and see if they can put a memorial card for Tigger in the chapel with the thousands in his company. I’ll write this post and hope the bleeding inside stops.

ShortieRoots2The short-eared owls aren’t yet rare, but we still stand breathless waiting for them to fly moth-like as they hunt at sundown.  We listen for their raspy barks in flight, watch for them to land on a post, rootwad, or elderberry stem,  then their heads to wither us with the piercing owl stare.  I know they are reliable here at the Welts-Samish restoration area, overwintering before returning to northern breeding grounds.ShortieSunset

On a cold, sunny afternoon, we are all here chasing nature:  the duck hunters, the bird watchers, people taking kids for a walk, wildlife photographers, and me.

It dawns on me that nature used to chase us, and if we were chasing nature, it was just to get a meal.  Now, we chase what’s left of nature just for the experience.  Big game hunters spend tens of thousands of dollars on multi-day journeys to go on safari far away.  People fly to remote Churchill, Manitoba to view polar bears from the safety of lodges and snow buggies. Big Year birders look plain crazy to me, burning fossil fuels to tear around the world just to sight as many bird species as possible in a sort of manic stamp-collecting competition.

But I’m just as guilty of leaving a trail of carbon as I chase nature: flying to Costa Rica and driving from the Cloud Forest where the vanishing resplendent quetzal lives to the Osa Pensinsula to find the engandered Baird’s tapir.  I will be flying to Whitehorse in the Yukon to see the Northern Lights.  I’ve driven several times to Montana to hike and camp where grizzlies and bison roam. This year, I took three flights on my first trip to the barren and beautiful Canadian Arctic.

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I’d rather walk out the back door and see nature, so I’m doing as much restoration as I can. A long-eared owl stopped by for a couple weeks in 2012. Shorties stop by my property  every year in the fall, but they never stay. This fall, one landed in my pasture to snatch up a rodent, and did fly-overs for about a week.  I was hopeful for a winter resident, but it eventually flew away.  The hoots of great horned owls and screeches of barn owls in our fields at night don’t bode well for the long-eared owls and shorties.

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Long-eared owl at my house; attention posture

Highly nomadic and migratory, short-eared look for open grasslands where ground shelter is decent and rodent hunting is good.  Samish Flats makes good overwintering ground for a number of raptors even with duck hunters lurking in blinds around the area.

I’ll keep working on my habitat so I don’t have to wander far to see owls.  I’ll not put up farm lights that pollute the night sky with glare and make it impossible to see blood moons and northern lights on the rare occasions we see them. But I’ll still have to get on a plane to visit polar bears and tapirs, and will have to road trip to see bison and grizzlies, long gone from most Western landscapes. Like everyone else in this changing world, I will chase nature.

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My fuzzy picture of the September 27 blood moon, from my pasture

 

 

 

Summit Lake Camp between rainstorms

Summit Lake Camp between rainstorms

The best lunch I’ve enjoyed in recent memory was delivered to my tent by guide Rhys Hill on a rainbound day at Summit Lake.  Hot bannock grilled with cheese and ham delivered in a plastic bowl to the vestibule, along with a bottle of glacier runoff water, fruit leather, and a chocolate granola bar from my snack bag made an unforgettable feast.

Lunch in my daily life now is usually forgettable.  I eat at my computer like many busy people, putting down calories without recalling what foodstuff contained those calories. Meals at home are more deliberate:  summer lunches eaten on the front porch listening to birds moving through the weeping cedar and crabapple, Sunday breakfast with hot coffee listening to the radio. All the same, I take food for granted most of the time, as only people in well-fed countries  can do.

Rainy day room service, Summit Lake camp, Auyuittuq National Park

Rainy day room service, Summit Lake camp, Auyuittuq National Park

But when a body is burning energy daily and the world is simplified into eat, sleep, walk, and stay warm, a hot lunch is everything.  When  clouds sit on top of a temporary nylon home, pelting the shelter with rain and wind, lunch is a highlight of the day, comfort and sustenance, survival.

Our plan was to camp at Summit Lake, day hike the following day to the Turner Glacier to see the famous Mt. Aasgard;  the Mt. Aasgard of the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved me. By this point in the trip, I had committed to brooding, magical Mt. Thor as my favorite, but we were still exploring as much of the traverse as we could despite the travel delays.

The day hike to the Turner didn’t happen the first day we intended.  We joked about the polar desert environment over breakfast, after living through wind and rain all night.  I had slept quietly, but others were kept awake by the flapping of the solid but noisy Hilleberg tents – even if they were sleeping in their own tents, and the Hilleberg was someone else’s.  After breakfast, our plans unraveled and we were chased back into our tents by another round of stormy weather. Everyone withdrew to write, read, sleep, or look at photos.

The lunch delivery was a welcome treat.  I didn’t want to burn any more camera battery, and I was struggling to write in the small Rite-in-the-Rain book I’d carried with.  My writing was not florid prose, but notes, cue words, and pen sketches written with a crabbed, cold hand as I hunched over.

OldCaribouAntlersSometime after lunch, the rain gave us a break for the afternoon and dinner before chasing us back into our tents.  Some of us went hiking.  I followed Trond and Ruth northward, but decided not to try following the gracefully rock-hopping Norweigans over the high point they chose to cross over a creek.  I backtracked to the Summit Lake moraine to find the caribou antler Ruth had picked up the day before. There are no caribou in the area anymore, and a hunting ban is in place indefinitely because populations have dropped 95% since the 1990’s, down to a herd of only 5,000 animals. According to CBC report, natural migration in addition to over-harvest due to the “reach of snowmobiles” is to blame.  Even pro-hunting legislators lined up to protect the remaining animals and work to establish a sustainable management plan.

The antlers left in this area are mostly old ones, yellow like this, though Trond found a big, white, complete rack by the Half Hour Creek emergency camp area.

PeekabooAasgardTurnerGlacierWe hiked the next day to the Turner Glacier to see if we could catch a glimpse of Mt. Asgard.  Micheil said the Turner River, something we weren’t keen to cross, had moved since he last saw it.  A central moraine with ice beneath a thin layer of rock stood allowed us to ascend to a spot where we could see the famous mountain. Mt. Asgard is there, behind that cloud, to the left of the rock teeth above the ice of the Turner Glacier.  Really.  It’s like Mt. Rainier, the famous volcano in my state:  you can work in an office for an entire winter and not realize your window has a great mountain view until the clouds clear and the sprawling, glacier-clad mountain looms large and white.  Really.  Others in my group pictured silhouettes of Aasgard, but I did not.  Standing on the rock-studded icy moraine of the Turner, I was happy to have made the place, and missed the somber and thoughtful Mt. Thor.

Even with the marginal weather, the rich orange-red of the iron-streaked terrain glowed against the gray mountains and sky.  Equally warm was the joy of traveling with a lighter pack-  though I was admittedly no more nimble and balanced than when I was carrying all my gear and shared food on my back.

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Our camp at Summit Lake was lovely between storms, with mountains all around. My spot wasn’t the most comfortable.  Tucking in behind Susan’s tent along a rock wall helped break the wind a little, but the ground beneath me was uneven.  My warm ultralight Thermarest and ability to sleep regardless saved me during three nights at this location.BreidablikHwyGlacierEve

At every camp,  the simple things were all that counted like pitching the tent to put a layer of nylon between us and the wind. The tents might have been flimsy shelters, but the psychological comfort they provided was very real. Food counted a lot, no matter what it was.  No mindless meals working at a computer; we carefully watched Micheil and Rhys cook, contemplated how much fat we could add to a meal in the form of cheese or peanut butter, relished every hot meal.   Sure, the outfitter brochure promised pine-nut pesto, and the food barrels that never met up with us due to flight problems held bacon, wine, and rich desserts of pears to be drizzled with Grand Marnier-laced chocolate sauce. But for us, burning calories to stay warm and carry heavy packs over rough terrain , an extra piece of Co-Jack cheese on a bowl of chili, or a hot grilled sandwich consumed inside a rain-whipped tent was an incomparable feast.

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A lovely camp despite the pack-chewing rodents

A lovely camp despite the pack-chewing rodents

I guess I don’t qualify as a “lister” or a collector.  I like birds, but the closest I came to listing those I saw was in Costa Rica, when I followed my travel buddy’s example and marked them in my field guide. I never got a 50-peak pin.  The way I remember experiences and encounters is by picture, notes, and stories, but those are scattered everywhere; occasionally a forgotten gem of an memory or visual surfaces and it’s like Christmas.

As the years wear on, I become even more independent and wandering, traits that oppose listing and collecting.  You won’t find me like young ultralight trail runners dashing from peak to peak, three or four in a day to add to the list, leaping down hills and over creeks.  I’ll be moving alone through the woods or over a ridge, then stop dead because there is the thumping sound of grouse, or a strange rock, or if I’m lucky, a bone. I like game trails because deer and elk know the countryside and  all the good routes and interesting things to see.  I like to see them, too, or follow their tracks and browse until the sound of shadows rushing through the trees reaches my ears.SarasOrangetip

During two trips to Ingalls Creek before Memorial Day weekend, I enjoyed bug-bite free conditions, mild weather, nice flowers and butterflies.  On the second trip I packed a tent so I could sleep peacefully as I do outside and away from the busy Puget Sound area.  I wandered worry-free:  no one would be straining for a destination, a training speed, an appointment.  I hiked fast when I wanted, slow when I pleased, and stopped where ever I felt like.  This isolation and freedom becomes terribly addictive and I worry sometimes that I will become one of those old people who is found six months rotten and stinking after dying alone at home.  But for now, it’s nice to unwind, to eat dinner when I feel like it perched on a boulder of my choosing all by myself, to see faces in the rocks, the moss, the trees.

See the ghost face?  Like The Scream in rock.

See the ghost face? Like The Scream in rock.

The world is changing out there, maybe because so many people go to the woods as a hobby now.  The goats want to lick your arms, foxes wait beside the road for handouts, grey jays steal sandwiches out of your hands, and rodents lurk under the logs to commit night-time raids on camping gear.  I usually stuff my pack inside two opposed 6 ml contractor bags at night, and have never had a problem.  This time, I woke to the sound of plastic rustling a couple times and found the noise resulted in severance of a strap going from my hipbelt to the shoulder pad, which was also gnawed.  I was able to tie the strap to the sternum strap and carry out, but will next time bring the pack inside with me, even if I’m in my teeniest tent.  Somehow that nylon veil with the large breathing body behind it bars the teeth of hungry rodents.  Until I’m six hours dead, I guess, and then they figure it out and start the circle of life routine.

I didn't eat your pack strap, really I didn't

I didn’t eat your pack strap, really I didn’t

I shouldn’t be so terrible, and I will have to buck up to trail along with 10-12 other people on Baffin Island this year, if no injury, illness or catastrophe befalls me before then. The outfitters encourage socializing while making dinner, sharing stories, and having a human experience.  I am going to test my taste for the Arctic, to see snowy owls, to feel what barren is really like.  I’m a study in opposites- a very private and independent extrovert- so I know I can do this if I try.  When I crossed paths with a lone day hiker at Ingalls, I didn’t look down or away, but instead smiled and chatted for a moment.  But I didn’t linger, and in the Arctic I will find time to wander alone, to pick and poke and take pictures and notes, to get a feel for the place.  Ingalls Creek was the first warm up.

 

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