Dancing with Wolves

Image

With my daughter at W.O.L.F.

The ride from the flatlands of Greeley, Colorado to the wolf sanctuary in the foothills northwest of Ft. Collins is pretty mundane.  It’s a paved zip through the front range red rocks followed by a slower trundle on a dirt road that splits a narrow canyon in right down the middle. 

Once you get there, everything changes.

Image

The sanctuary is home to 30 wolves which are mostly wolf-dog crossbreeds.  It’s parked on 180 acres of land of which only a small portion can be used per edict of the Larimer county bureaucracy.

Wolves and crossbreeds that are substantially wolf are distinguishable from ordinary dogs.  Wolves eyes are close set, their snouts are longer, and on average they are armed with canine teeth twice as long a those of a large dog.  Obviously they need strong canines.  If they don’t hang on, they don’t eat. 

Wolves are highly intelligent with the energy level of a border collie.  They’re skittish and true wolves fear humans.  Wanna mess with one?  The sanctuary has had 150 pounders you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley… 

We learned disturbing news.  People crossbreed wolves and dogs thinking they’re creating cool pets. They’re gorgeous animals, but guess what?  They don’t have the laid back personality of your dog next door.  Sanctuaries across the country are full of animals their owners could not handle. 

My niece brought along some dog treats.  The first animals we met were guarded in their approaches, but most eventually succumbed to temptation.  In a couple of cases we were careful not to stick our fingers through the fence. 

Image

The electric wire is inactive in winter.  In summer it discourages bears from raiding the wolves cupboard.

Image

The enclosures are one third to one half acre, each with a male/female paring.  Seems like the females among them don’t get along with each other all that well.

Twice during our visit, the wolves began howling in unison.  Seems that if anything upsets one, the pack vocalizes its support.  If only we could get the intransigent members of congress singing on that song sheet… 

To be honest, the piercing harmony of thirty wolves singing in unison easily ignites primal human instincts.  I must say that it was nothing short of awesome.  But just as I know that black bears generally fear humans, I’m not sure I’d warm to the thrill of hearing the wolves cry up close while hiking alone! 

Howling aside, ambassador animals are habituated to humans and serve as community educators to help people understand wolves in general and that crossbreeding wolves and dogs isn’t a bright idea.  We got to spend some awesome time inside an enclosure with two of them. 

Image

Image

Image

Image

My niece has been a volunteer at W.O.L.F. for several years.  Her posts about and photographs of her beloved wolves on Facebook are informative and fascinating.  She’s also exactly half way through law school, and I’m a very proud uncle. 

Learn more at http://www.wolfsanctuary.net

Worst Case Scenario

Winter Wonderland

Winter Wonderland

The range of winter weather in the southern Appalachian Trail and mountains ranges from pleasantly mild to bitter cold with heavy snow.

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is both noted as the home of the highest peak east of the Mississippi (Clingman’s Dome – 6,643 ft.) but probably more so for its terrible winter weather.  Just this week a group of ill-prepared hikers required rescue from the cold and snow. http://www.weather.com/video/hikers-rescued-in-snowstorm-42994?

With facts like these in mind, I re-evaluated my winter kit over the holidays.

When I left the trail to celebrate Christmas with my family, my basic sleeping system, due to my distance runner’s stature, was based on a woman’s Sierra Designs woman’s dry down 25 degree bag supplemented by “puffy” down booties, pants and two down jackets sized to fit inside one another.

I am a warm sleeper and reasoned that the sleeping bag was good to at least 20 degrees F in my case.  With the booties, pants and jackets I figured that I could get to -10 F comfortably.  A zero degree night of borderline comfort proved me wrong.

So, I resurrected my zero degree 70’s vintage, but weighty, Holubar sleeping bag .  Holubar was bought by North Face decades ago, for the record.

Please don’t misunderstand.  I adore winter hiking and camping.  To be redundant, it’s unique and there’s nothing like it.  To be selfish, this week I spent four days on the AT and guess how many other hikers I saw?  Zero!  The AT was mine alone for that time.  Not a human track anywhere.

I enjoy company on the trail, but those who have thru hiked during the crowded traditional hiker season may appreciate what it means to have the trail and the woods, not to mention every shelter and privy all to one’s self.  It’s an amazing experience and privileged access to a treasured public accommodation not to be lightly dismissed.

When I hit the trail on Tuesday, I knew that the weather forecast for Thursday and Friday was ominous. As I ‘misunderstood’ it, the chance of rain on Thursday was 40 percent with an 80 percent chance of snow on Friday.  The bottom was supposed to drop out of the thermometer Friday night.  I was only slightly off.

Knowing it “might” rain on Thursday, January 2, I prepared appropriately.  When I bounded away from Thomas Knob Shelter, I was ‘armored up’ in rain gear including waterproof mitten shells and my new (and third) pack cover was battened down with a cat 5 hurricane in mind.

What foresight, if I do say so myself.  Ever seen a cow urinate on a flat rock?  That’s how the rain let loose about five steps after I jumped out of the shelter door!

Bam!!! I was swimming in the soup.  The volume varied, but the precipitation didn’t let up all day as my boots squished steadily southward across White Top Mountain in the direction of Damascus. The going was slow.

Here’s the good news and bad news.  First the bad.  The temperature all day hovered around 32 degrees.  The ground remained frozen. As proof, I nearly crashed and burned crossing a gravel parking lot glazed with a hidden layer of slick black ice.  On the positive side, my rain gear and base layer did their jobs.  I arrived in camp in very good shape considering.

I had hoped for a 24 mile day.  If I could do that, I’d be in Damascus by noon Friday and home Friday evening.  That was not to be.  Oh well, flexibility is a key to happy hiking.

At 4:30 p.m. I made Lost Mountain Shelter.  The temp was dropping and the rain was just beginning to mix with snow.  With my quota still six miles away, I realized that I’d be night hiking yet again.  This time with early darkness caused by the cloud cover, it would mean almost three murky hours in sleet and snow.

The decision to stop for the night was a no-brainer.  I was fatigued from the previous two tough days.  Given the day’s rain volume, who knows how heavy the snow might become.  Headlamps penetrate snow no better than car headlights see through fog.  The trail bed was icy in spots.  Check dams can form frozen skating rinks in winter.  Not safe.  Time to check my ambition at the door and brake for sanity.

Good decision.  The shelter was clean and in good repair with convenient amenities thanks to the local trail club volunteers. The spring and privy were handy.  The setting was aesthetically pleasing.  It doesn’t get better than that on the AT.

It also was nice to have extra time to settle in.  I wouldn’t have to cook or set up my bedroll by headlamp.  As the curtain of darkness smothered the landscape, my appetite was satiated and I rolled into my sleeping bag. It was around 6 p.m.  Hiker midnight is a relative condition… set at any time you want if you’re solo.

Since the previous two nights bottomed out in the low 20s, I expected the trend to continue because my understanding was that the super cold would arrive overnight on Friday.  By then I could now anticipate being comfortably ensconced once again at Crazy Larry’s.  Accordingly I chose to wear fewer layers and not don my down pants or booties.  I did, as I habitually do, tuck into bed with me a liter of water, a butane canister and a pair of mittens.  Since it was time to change socks, I put on fresh liners and socks.

I fell asleep almost immediately.  When I winked out, rain drops were still tapping the shelter’s tin roof.  In time nature called.  Without glasses I glanced at my watch.  I thought it read 5:30 a.m.  I felt like I’d slept through the night.  That would be a record.  As I parked my glasses on my nose to confirm the time, I realized it was only 9:30 p.m.  Oops!

The weather was calm.  The rain had stopped.  Not much snow was falling.  The temperature was moderate.  I plugged in my iPod to a vintage radio playlist and drifted off to an episode of “Richard Diamond, Private Detective.”

Ever imagined what sleeping next to a thousand-car freight train at full speed sounds like?  That thought jerked me awake around 11:15 p.m. as the wind howled and trees cracked and groaned.  Thank you Benton MacKaye for imagining shelters built like military bunkers.

The snow was swirling like icy diamond dust as it sprinkled my face with surrealistic pin pricks.  I cinched down the opening to my sleeping bag to the size of  grapefruit.  My nose was colder than I could remember it being for a long time, yet my body was toasty.  Back to sleep.

The wind kept blasting away.  Falling branches and trees served as multiple alarm clocks trough the night.  My exposed nose-o-meter sensed remarkably lower temperatures.  What layers should I wear tomorrow if this continues, I worried?  That the next day’s destination, 18.5 miles away, was Damascus was the saving grace.  With that in mind, I reasoned I could gut through most anything.

A sudden silence awakened me around 5:30 a.m.  The driving wind stopped like Mother Nature flipped a switch.  Check.  The front moved on.  One problem solved.  Extreme wind chill was out of the wardrobe and safety equation.  Amen!

Knowing I had big miles to go, I was up and moving well before six.  As I stumbled to the privy in rock hard boots, the light powdery snow squeaked and crunched.  Oh oh.  It’s colder than I thought.  Snow doesn’t make that sound unless it’s 10 F or colder.

The thermometer on my pack read -5 F.  The bottom had fallen out a day earlier than I expected.  In spite of all that, I was comfortable through the night without the benefit of my full kit.  The added tonnage on my back paid its dividend.

Think about it.  At 4:30 p.m. the previous evening, the rain had soaked all my exposed equipment.  My pack straps, nylon webbing, including my trekking poles, had been thoroughly dunked.  How about my rain jacket and rain cover?  Oh boy!

I’d hung my gear up in hopes that dripping and some evaporation would occur before everything froze.  As every professional manager knows, hope is not a method.  By morning everything was crunchy to say the least.  What an understatement.

This is the worst case scenario that I have seriously worried about since contemplating a thru hike.   What happens when hikers get soaked right before the temperature crashes to a dangerous level?  At -5 F, skin freezes on contact with any material that rapidly conducts heat.  Frostbite and hypothermia are clear and present dangers.  You can be serious trouble before you even know it.

Fortunately I have profited from previous soakings.  In those cases, luckily timed town stops saved my bacon as I slopped thoroughly waterlogged beyond imagination into Erwin, Tenn. and Damascus, Va.  This time, the cargo compartment of my pack was dry inside and out.  The base layer I was wearing dried out because it was only damp with sweat.  The waterproof mitten shells worked.  For redundancy’s sake, back up gloves, mittens, socks and a base layer were in the ready rack if need be.

When it is seriously cold, everything takes at least twice as long.  After unzipping my sleeping bag, I slipped on my glove liners; then my mittens.  You never want bare skin to touch anything.  When I needed dexterity to stuff cargo sacks or manipulate zippers and the like, I took off the mittens.  When the task was complete I jammed my hands back into the mittens until they warmed up again.  Only then did I attempt the next task.

The valve on my NeoAir was frozen shut.  Why not?  Breath is full of water vapor.  Only bare hands could wrench it open.  That smarted.

Once the pack was set, the real adventure unfolded.  Everything that had been exposed to rain was stiff and solid.  Think of a pack harness forged of wrought iron.  Board-like straps didn’t slide in buckles.  The frozen-solid rain jacket stood up by itself.  The straps on my trekking poles which had been hung on a peg resembled rabbit ears…

Fortunately, I always loosen the laces on my boots before bed.  If I had known just how cold it would get, I would have put them inside my sleeping bag.  Thanks to the thick dry socks, my feet never got cold in spite of wearing icy boots.  Walking saved the day.  Gaiters kept the snow off my socks and out of my boots.

The sounds of Rice Crispies echoed off the walls as I struggled into my gear. Had you been there, you would have had to pardon my occasional “french” expletives.

The shelter faded behind me around 8:30 a.m.  Not bad considering.  As the day unfolded, body heat thawed the equipment, the straps loosened, and everything ultimately began to fit properly.

The day’s high hovered around 5 above.  My water bottle even got slushy inside my jacket.  That NEVER happened at -20 in northern Minnesota!  I had different and a heavier outer layer then which may account for the difference.

The day and trail itself were awesome.  Brilliant sun reflected off a snow frosted landscape.  The tracks on the pristine path read like a story book with Br’er Rabbit and his pals eluding foxes and bobcats.  Wild boar and deer made their separate grocery shopping trips.  Guess what?  No bear tracks.  That was a surprise.

I’m home now in preparation to fly with my daughter to Colorado on family matters.  I can’t wait to get back on the trail.  As for future weather? Sea lo que sea.

IMG_1622IMG_1619

Happy New Year!

IMG_1569

At 7 a.m. New Year’s Eve Bill, who is the original owner of Mt. Rogers Outfitters in Damascus, picked me up at Crazy Larry’s hostel. He shuttled me 63 trail miles north to Partnership Shelter so I could hike southward back to my car in Damascus. The most fitting way to welcome the new year would be on the trail, I thought.

My new roomier pack and extra winter gear freights a few pounds heavier than the set up I used when I left the trail for Christmas.  Actually, it’s more than a few. The whole giddy-up weighs 37 lbs with food and water. It didn’t take long to feel the difference.

My goal was Hurricane Mountain Shelter some 20 miles from the drop-off point.  With that jaunt, I was trying to set up a return home by Friday night. It would require several long days with a 24 miler on Thursday. That would enable a Friday noon finish. It didn’t happen, but first things first.

The southbound hike into Hurricane ended in a series of steep ascents. That’s where 13 days off the trail and the extra tonnage on my back reared their ugly heads. The day ended up with a short up hill night hike into a delightful shelter ideally situated to snag the sunrise.  The kid was beat.

After camp chores, the stroke of hiker midnight turned out to be around 7:30 p.m. I texted new year greetings to my family and a few select hiker friends who would understand that I hadn’t nipped the champagne early.  2014 arrived a little early on Hurricane Mountain sans champagne.

Around actual midnight I awoke to the sound of distant fireworks and a sense stifling warmth.  Had I died and gone to hell?

Actually, it was 20 degrees outside and my sleeping bag, augmented by down pants, booties and jackets, made heat stroke seem like a real possibility.  I slept the remainder of the night with the bag unzipped and open to the waist.  “Do I really need all this winter gear,” I questioned?  The answer will come in the blog post following this one.

New Years Day dawned bright and sunny.  Opposite the weather, it delivered one of the most difficult hikes of my life. First, the trail profile was mostly up hill – way up hill from 3,810 ft. to 5,430 ft. in altitude. What the guidebook didn’t say was that the rocks would be back in overwhelming force.

All the rocky delights were represented like a Whitman’s Sampler – talus, high steps, tombstones, loose rollers, jumbled piles. Some were even frosted with ice from the previous morning’s sleet storm I forgot to mention earlier.

So what, I rationalized. The Grayson Highlands ponies were the New Year’s Day featured attraction. They’re worth the price of admission.

What a price. My quads burned from the previous day’s marathon. Every high step was agonizing. Grayson is deceptive. You dip in and out of the park and pastures in such a way that several times you believe you’re done.  You’re not and neither are the rocks. The southbound hike just gets harder.

So there I was closing in on sunset and still no ponies. Was I going to be “Oh Fer” and get skunked like my hiker friend Karma whose misfortune was to strike out on her thru hike last year?  “Damn!” I cursed in fatigued disappointment.

Ultimately, the trail guided me up a bald topped like a fudge sundae with a crumbling brown rock pile. As I schlepped around the cherry on top, there they were!

In the far, far distance I spied ponies grazing high on a steep hillside. Thinking I wasn’t headed that way, I snapped a shaky telephoto shot with my iPhone thinking that would be all there was. Not much later I was parading through the middle of them.

Darkness was closing in rapidly with the shelter three long miles away.  Two night hikes in a row.  Grump grump.

The previous day’s sleet had painted the plants with a glassy coat. As the sun sank, the backlit splendor was sadly impossible to capture with a camera phone, but I tried anyway.

All I can say is that as my headlamp blazed the path forward, a million ice crystal facets wink back as if to say, “Slow down. Be patient. All will be well.” And it was.

The trail improved and promptly at 6:15 pm the shelter showed up right on time.  After fetching water, I looked into a cold and clear sky winking with stars.  Not a sight one sees in cities like the one where I live.  All was well.

The shelter register reads. 1-1-14. “Sisu slept here on the first beautiful day of 2014 and wishes you a happy new year.”

20140104-162047.jpg

20140104-162127.jpg

20140104-162158.jpg