Monday, January 23, 2023

A-D-V-E-N-T-U-R-E: the trek

I took a little circumstantial break from my A-D-V-E-N-T-U-R-E backpacking mini series because, well, kids. I’ve spent the majority of this new year so far on an ADVENTURE all it’s own, caring for my own three plus a couple of bonus boys through the Strong Families program where we volunteer. The days have been incredibly full and the new-to-us minivan hasn’t had a seatbelt to spare. It’s been the best kind of crazy. I will (likely) go back to “only” three kids this week, and with that, I hope to wrap up this series before my trip becomes a distant memory. If you are just joining in, I’ve been chronicling my first ever backpacking experience and you can find my first two posts here and here

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D-day had finally arrived. I was abuzz with nerves and plenty of caffeine, a hiker’s must before any adventure, but especially an overnight one I’d decided. I might have to pee a lot now, but my other system would thank me later for the pre-hike cleanout perks of drinking coffee, if you know what I mean. If I was lucky, I could escape the horrific-sounding experience of having to cart any used TP covered in you-know-what back down the mountain with me (please refer to my first post if you are unclear what I am referring to).

As I pulled into my parking space where we were meeting, I decided on a whim to do a crash-course last viewing of the videos our leaders had sent on shelter creation. This felt a bit like overkill, since their mention of the YouTube tutorials seemed like a bonus optional activity, not an essential one. The video demonstrated no less than four different ways to arrange your magic tarp, depending on whether your highest priority was shelter from wind or rain, or whether you wanted one end more open to enjoy a view. I’m more of a hands-on learner and the process seemed far too complicated for my brain to memorize so, like every wise outdoorswoman who has ever gone before me, I closed the window on my phone and decided I would “just wing it when I got there.” Surely the leaders would be setting up our church-provided shelters on site, right? We probably just needed the video knowledge “in case we felt like helping.”

After one final gear check as a team, we were ready to head up to Snoqualmie Pass where we would begin our ascent to Kendall Peak Lakes from a private backyard. The hike itself was slow-going but mostly uneventful. It took us much longer than expected to make the trek up, but we all stuck together and cheered each other on during the segments where chit chat was encouraged. Our guides paused at various points along the hike to point out the curiosities of nature, encouraging us to also spend time in silence, pondering specific questions they posed along the way. 

We were required to leave all watches and technology at the trailhead (the photo above came from a leader's watch and was provided to us AFTER the trip). So, we were at the mercy of our senses and the sun in the sky to determine how long we’d been at our trek. At what I would guess was about 3 hours in, we were only a little over half way. It became apparent to our guides that we needed to abandon our plan to wait until we reached our destination to eat our last meal before we began fasting. We pulled to the side of the path and picnicked on the trailside, filling our bellies with a lovely spread of charcuterie and crackers. Some of us honed in on the cheese, stuffing ourselves with unwholesomely large servings in hopes of keeping us good and stopped up for our night without toilets in the woods. (You’re welcome for that complimentary hiking hack).

For the majority of our climb, we trekked along a wide forest service road. Once we got high enough, we took a sharp left onto a road less traveled. I would venture to say very much less traveled. We pressed suddenly into a thick clump of trees, and I giggled to myself as I plowed through the brush, thwapping my hiking mates behind me with the branches I pushed out of the way and then released. There was really no way to maneuver the situation gracefully. Was this actually a trail? What had I been expecting? Maybe more carved wooden arrow signs that read “Kendall Peak Lakes this way?” Even without clear markings, I felt my sense of adventure sparking as I experienced the excitement of this I-think-we’re-on-the-trail-but-who-can-say-for-sure style of hiking.  

After hopping over some felled trees (surprisingly harder than you’d think when wearing a heavy backpack), and climbing a steep final hill, we reached our destination for the night, the second of the Kendall Peak Lakes. We dropped our packs and followed our fearless leaders as they led us around the area, pointing out good “campsite” options (read: patches of flat-ish, bare-ish ground, approximately the size of a human body). Again, I’m not sure what I was expecting. Perhaps a Ranger doling out papers with our last names and the date range of our planned stay to clip on our shelters? Or maybe wooden posts toting the campsite numbers? A list of campground rules and published quiet hours? But there was none of this. Just a beautiful sparkling lake, and total, unadulterated freedom. Glory!

Most everyone snagged their preferred spot right away. I practiced unnatural-for-me flexibility as I waited to see which patch of ground was still available for me to pitch a tent. Er, I mean tarp. I secretly hoped for a waterfront spot, so I took a little walk along the shoreline with one of the leaders to see if we’d missed any good options. We were about 40 yards from the rest of the group when I spotted a pile of something brown and far too large to have exited out of the backside of a dog. My eyes bulged as I pointed to it, expecting my guide to scream in horror and announce we would consequently need to pack up and relocate to a safer area. Instead, she kicked at the poop with her hiking boot as if it were a rock and then announced matter-of-factly, “It’s old.” 

She said it as if this was some form of great reassurance. I looked at her blankly and then realized I was supposed to be set at ease. “Oh okay,” I say, trying to play along and hoping the cool-as-a-cucumber vibe I was channeling was working. I realized at that moment that I personally don’t really care about the age of bear scat that I encounter in the wilderness. I don’t practice prejudice. YOU GUYS! IT WAS BEAR SCAT! It’s one thing to know there are bears in the forest. It’s another thing to KNOW there are bears in the forest. 

Now, I’ve been watching the History Channel survival show, Alone, ever since I became outdoorsy this past summer. The show chronicles contestants who are dropped off with only 10 items in the rural woods of British Columbia. Their goal is to see how long they can make it in the wilderness living off the land. The individuals encounter many terrifying forms of wildlife; one hundred percent of them come across bears. And before they run into the bear, they first observe the excrement. And people observing poop love making all sorts of comments about temperature, steaminess, moisture level etc. etc. So, as one does after watching a show like this, I have learned to be *slightly* more accommodating of the older, drier bear scats. But I couldn’t say that was the case when I was on my backpacking trip. Who knew I was to become a bear scat connoisseur? I certainly did not. Growth mindset, I tell ya what. 

Anyhow, one of the women in our group had openly expressed her terror surrounding bear encounters prior to the trip, so my leader and I agreed to keep our little scat discovery to ourselves. I managed to act about as casually as if I had just discovered that Santa Claus isn’t actually real as we marched our way back toward the others who had claimed their spots and were beginning to unpack their bags. I pasted a We’re-Fine-Everything’s-Fine smile on my face for approximately 28 seconds before I whispered through my teeth to the friend who had invited me that I’d just found bear poop. We didn’t have any time to discuss matters further because a request was made for a quick shelter-building demonstration with the tarps that had been provided to us.

One of our leaders obliged with a little coaxing (hallelujah!) but something told me a visual demo was not in the plan and that we were intended to figure out how to construct a shelter on our own. Whatever the case, I was grateful for it, and tried to absorb everything she was saying before we dispersed to our individual sites to begin our time of silence and try it for ourselves.

Some members of our group felt most comfortable setting up camp in close proximity to our guides. Others wanted a lakefront view. I was (slightly) more okay with being further away which somehow translated to my snagging the spot that was THE FURTHEST away from the rest of the group. I was either going to be the first one eaten by a bear or the last, depending on which direction he came from. But perk! Since I had no one on one side of my camp, I could easily drop my drawers toward that side when I needed to pee, mooning the empty hillside without a care in the world. There’s always a plus side! 

It probably goes without saying that I didn’t practice shelter building. I didn’t realize that I needed to. I dumped out my fancy tarp and all the silky cords that accompanied it and set to work. Immediately I realized a problem: the spikes on my hiking poles were too large to fit in the grommet holes of my tarp. I had no tent poles, the hiking poles were it. The demonstration I’d just witnessed wasn’t going to work for me. Stubborn to the core and refusing to seek help, I dug in my heels and determined I would figure this out. I dusted off the memory of the YouTube videos I had breezed through in my car before we departed. Little did I realize I should have memorized them step-by-step, that the difference between a wet and a dry sleeping bag in the AM could depend on this moment. 

One video had mentioned something about using a stick to secure the rope in the grommets. If the spike on the pole was incompatible with my tarp, maybe a stick could work? I channeled my engineer father and snapped some thick twigs into workable lengths as I MacGyvered a solution to my misfit poles. If I threaded a loop of my rope through the grommet and then inserted a stick into the loop, it would function as a stopper to keep the rope in place. Then I could loop the rope around my misfit pole a few times and use it to prop up my shelter. As long as I could get enough tension on the ropes pulling in each direction and made no sudden movements, it could work. My next trick was to figure out how to create tension on both sides of my shelter simultaneously so that I could tighten my ropes and secure the shelter. Try as I might, every time I would get one side of my shelter up, the other side would fall as I attempted to stake it in place. It seemed impossible without an extra set of hands. After what felt like the twelfth try, finally, success! Without further adieu, I'd like to introduce you to my pride and joy: my shelter!

For real though, I'm ridiculously proud of this thing. It may not seem like much but I dare you to go out in the woods and built your own shelter and then tell me you don't feel like the most empowered being that has ever walked the forest. It was only after I secured my fortress in place that I realized I’d accidentally built my shelter over a small shrubbery. Oops! I wasn’t about to retry the whole ordeal so I surrendered to sleeping that night alongside my little “indoor” bush (please see the bulging lump on the right). Good thing I'm not a perfectionist! And even better that I’m a plant lady! It’s almost fitting, actually. 

Oh, and guess what I found a mere minutes after pitching my shelter? Yep, you guess it! More bear scat, FIFTEEN FEET from my spot. 

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posted by kelsie