Tag Archive: backpacking

IntotheWildAuyuittuq has only fragments of trail- bits that you celebrate like a delerious drunken sailor before they disappear into a gouged-out riverbank or a rockslide. You start out at Pangnirtung Fiord on sand and feel like this will be a super-easy trail. What’s that uneven ground they warned you about, anyway? And then you have to scramble over a rockslide with that heavy pack, pick your way down a jumble of rocks on a glacier moraine.  Even the most nimble of us did the dance to stay upright once or twice.  

But for me, a couple days were an unending exercise in slipping, tipping, bruising, and cussing. If it weren’t for Mt. Thor watching over me, I might not have found a solution or salvation.

In late 2010, the orthopedic surgeon didn’t really think it was weird that I wanted to have my old hip joint as a souvenir, to take it with me on new adventures.  Apparently people who have replacement surgery at a young age  commonly have the same primitive desire to carry removed body parts in celebration of renewed life along as they continue traveling the world.

What I left behind was not just pain, disability, and degraded bone pitted and gnarled by chronic inflammation.  Using only the finest of carpentry tools, the good doctor carved out rotten bone and along with it, removed pressure sensors that help the brain tell where the leg and foot is.  While bird-watching a couple months after the surgery, I was looking up as I attempted to step onto a downward sloping plank across a water-filled ditch.  My brain just said “no” and my foot wouldn’t move. Hiking and scrambling in Death Valley National Park a month after that, the brain freeze effect was even more noticeable. At my three month check up, the attending doc looked quizzical, told me I was doing a little more than usual for a recovering patient, and said it would take 18 months to rewire as best as I could.

Life is better with fake parts- it's glorious to be walking in the clouds again

My first stint on crampons after surgery was at Mt. St. Helens, pictured at right.  I was frustrated by my inability to use different foot positions, but I made it.  I kept moving on foot, on skis, whatever I could use to keep going.  When I had to scramble with a pack over the roots and rocks on the way to Tuck Lake this summer, I was footsure and comfortable.

But there is a difference between uneven terrain and moving uneven terrain.  Rolling stones that gather no moss or lichens. Boulders perched on sand and gravel, all ready to let loose.  Parks Canada gives a thorough introduction when you register for the Auyuittuq hike, letting you know where it’s safe to cross moraines- Crater Lake by the Weasel, Windy Lake high up, by the mountain.  Look for paths with moss and lichens, Ranger Matthew said gently.  They’re more stable; they won’t roll from under your feet or onto you.

Oh, and watch for quicksand.

Well, I found that quicksand first, walking right beside Ruth but taking the wrong step on jello-ey wet ground before my foot plunged downward.  I tried to pull out the foot, but it felt like a creature underneath the soil had a death grip on my ankle.  Then my companions tried to pull me out- standing too upright, and I sunk further.  The burly guides hauled me forward, but by this time, my faux hip was compressed at an agonizing angle at risk of dislocation.  I cussed loudly- the only f-bomb audible on the trip-  because I couldn’t move from that cramped position and I hurt.  Finally, the guides had me remove my camera from my chest harness, lay forward on the mud, and they just dug my foot out of the mud.  Cheating.

The wrong way to deal with quicksand. Photo courtesy of Susan.

The wrong way to deal with quicksand. Photo courtesy of Susan.

That was more of a gee-whiz adventure compared to lurching over rolling rocks with the heavy pack.  I later figured out that if anyone walked behind me and I heard the clatter of their trekking poles, the labored breathing, I would rush and trip. With marginal balance, the heavy pack would tip me just a little and I was gone.  Down on my butt mostly, sometimes banging a knee or thigh. I’m pretty durable, so besides looking like a spotted cow because of the bruises, the only thing that truly suffered was my patience. the only thing that kept me going was Mt. Thor, watching impassively above the valley as I struggled like an insect below.

I’m a problem solver by nature and will take action when I get frustrated. I started walking behind the rest, looking at the rocks I wanted to use for a second before I put a foot on them.  When it was too complicated and my brain would freeze, I counted rocks to keep going:  one-and-two-and-three. It hurt my brain the day we hiked from Summit Lake to Turner Glacier Moraine to see if Mt. Asgard would appear.  One-and-two-and-three and four, all day long.  But it worked, reducing my crash-and-burn rate to almost zero.  And then, I realized something important.

We hiked down Windy Lake moraine to set up camp.  Can you see our path?

We hiked down Windy Lake moraine to set up camp. Can you see our path?

By hanging back, I had a little space all to myself for just a little while.  When I wasn’t staring at a succession of rocks, I could gaze at the towering mountains flanking the ancient glacier-carved valley.  The clattering of trekking poles and the chattering of voices just faded away.  It was my hike, my valley for those periods. I could stop counting one-and-two-and-three and sometimes just sing a song that felt like this place, wonder at its grandeur.

Rocks everywhere- hard to walk on, but good for wind shelter.

Rocks everywhere- hard to walk on, but good for wind shelter.

I’ve heard arguments that we shouldn’t be spending health care dollars replacing people’s worn-out parts, that people who get those parts shouldn’t do anything beyond power walking and strolling along easy trails, that we just need to accept the creeping disability of old age.  I’ll argue back that these parts provide pain relief safer than any opiate, return us from major disability to productive life, and -if we use them well- keep us healthier as we age.

My orthopedic briefly put down his carpentry tools to draft a letter approving me to take this trek.  And Mt. Thor watched- I imagine- with quiet approval as I roller-skated on rocks until I figured it out.  What more could I ask for?

Color and life in a barren land

Mountains, clouds, and ice guard the entrance of a rich, magical valley

Mountains, clouds, and ice guard the entrance of a rich, magical valley

In the Pacific Northwest, we tend to become hunched and dull during winter, when the slate grey days end too soon and the evergreen trees loom monotonously dark green. We board planes flying to sunny places, where light sparkles on snow or tropical oceans.  Or we just stay put and get depressed, drink too much coffee, and buy expensive lights for our desks.

Mt. Thor, shedding storm clouds

Mt. Thor, shedding storm clouds

This verdant weight felt lush and light to me as I drove back from SeaTac airport after returning from Baffin Island without having seen a tree for weeks. There, everything appeared to be ice, dangerously cold water, impassive peaks, jumbled glacial moraines, sand and rocks, rocks and sand.

Where glaciers once ground the rocks to flour sometimes looks lifeless and painful, like dry boredom.  Rocks and dirt are washed around by water, tipped by gravity to tumble down moraines, heaved by freeze/thaw.

CarpetLook closer and you will see a carpet of plant life spreading over rocks and dirt that finally stop moving: lush, deep carpets of moss and lichen, mushrooms, willows, grasses, and flowers.  Along Cumberland Sound, find lemon yellow Arctic sulfur butterflies and deep orange fritillaries by freshwater streams.


Arctic Sulphur Butterfly- Pangnirtung headlands

In the Weasel River Valley, look up to see the warm streaks of iron across the charcoal and ivory surface of a mountain, or the warm wash of sun across the rocks or a wind-sculpted sand dune.  Find the iridescent sheen of bacteria thriving on iron and manganese rich water in puddles.  Delight in the abstract pattern of charcoal silt in a shallow stream.   Admire the faint gold of August evening light on the river braids.WeaselEveLight2

Around Crater Lake, pause to pick up rocks.  You will find crystals of every kind, shimmering finishes, all colors. These are rocks laid down by ancient lakes or thrown skyward by volcanoes, then heated under pressure to become gneiss, schist, quartzite, and slate.

The Pacific Northwest might wrap you in a soft cushion of greenery, so dense and comfortable that Midwest flatlanders like me never leave.  The seeming barren lands of the Arctic tundra drive you to action,  to seek beauty, drawing you onward with occasional flashes of beauty and brilliance.   Every day, once we set camp, I roamed looking for color and light.  When the pickup boat sped away down Pangnirtung Fiord, we looked back quietly at the grey fortress of mountains looming over the Weasel River Valley. Ruth said it was sad to leave the mystical valley, that she would miss just walking, eating, and sleeping, living a simple life in a beautiful place. I silently agreed as I imagined behind that curtain of rain flashes of red and gold, orange and pink, yellow and jet black.