Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge (SNWR) turned out to be the first place to visit on my quest to explore public lands within Oklahoma; and that was based entirely on it being bald eagle nesting season. I'm the first to admit that my photo interests are in capturing landscapes, and not critters. Landscapes are easy- they don't fly away from you, and you don't need to stalk them. You can walk loudly and goof off as you set up your shot, and then just move on with your life. Not the case with wildlife, which is why I'm sorta terrible at it. I knew from the outset that I was going to be handicapping myself and my photography chances since I'm incapable of walking across any surface softly.
But as I said, bald eagle nesting season was upon me, and those majestic birds were supposed to be much more visible and active, provided I could sneak up close to a nesting tree and use my modest zoom lens to get a closer look. The odds were allegedly in my favor, despite my stomping walk. SNWR is located at the confluence of the Canadian and Arkansas rivers in east-central Oklahoma, and is in prime waterfowl and bald eagle territory.
20,800 acres of spongy wetlands, bottom-land hardwoods, and briar patches comprise the refuge which was put in place to provide habitat to local and migratory animals. While driving up to SNWR and the confluence it also seemed to be prime real estate to let your lawns go feral with small children, trash, and cars that someone has full intention of getting running again one day. Just after they pull the tree out of the engine block.
Overall, this refuge is here for the animals, I hope. The acreage doesn't feel very inviting to any non-boating, non-fishing pole wielding visitors; where "Road Closed" signs dot the main track; inexplicably shutting down every enticing potential drive or hike.
I hope those signs are there to protect nesting wildlife and to keep ATV traffic quelled in what would surely be mud-boggin' heaven. But who knows why, because I showed up mid-day on a Saturday to a closed volunteer run Visitor Center that is open during business hours Monday- Thursday. Because that makes sense. The large open fields leading up to the rivers were punctuated by large oak trees, which would be perfect for night photography landscapes, but the refuge is for day use only. There was a rising sense of exclusion the further we got into the refuge- maybe this land wasn't necessarily our land.
We drove the two main roads, observing fields that had been torn up with what looked like knee high bulldozers- invasive wild boars that had eaten everything in their path. The boars were doing more damage to those Road Closed tracks than any vehicle would, and looked to be enjoying it. More manageable field damage was being done by the "alive" variety of armadillos, which I had never seen before.
Bald eagles were soaring overhead and nesting in far off trees, and taking down ducks for lunch in the rushes, well out of reach of the main road and my camera. All in all... lots of animals living out their lives in the refuge, which is exactly what it was set up to do. It can be hard to appreciate limited use land, especially when those uses are not for your primary enjoyment.
My day wrapped up with hardly a parting glance to Sequoyah and the stout fisherman that lined a small muddy inlet. The refuge was being used, and that's the whole point. Just because this land didn't cater to my specific demographic or interests doesn't matter, because it was catering to the original demographic; the plants, animals, trees, and rivers. And that's far more important than being able to mud bog down a dirt track.
As one is wont to do, I had intentions of looking for a specific photo deep in my hard drive archives and pulling it into the present for immediate editing. No distractions. No going down the memory lane rabbit hole. Absolutely do not open that folder marked "OLD. DON'T OPEN", which we all know is code for old vacation photos with an ex, and the only reason this set is still around is because I look particularly fit and that was a time I had Good Hair. So, I had the best intentions. Get in, get out. Edit. Except, I had to scroll through images of past field trips, vacations, my wedding, my engagement, and still further into the way-back machine where the grad school and undergrad images lived.
There were a number of bad hair-cuts to ruminate over.
As I was scrolling through these mostly embarrassing photos (that spring I only took flower pictures from above? Oiy.), I noted that there was a disproportionate number of pictures of brown signs. You know, those brown parks signs. Not exactly riveting imagery, but 2007 me clearly wanted to remember that I saw the Big Bend National Park sign and it was necessary to stand by it and cheese it up. In true Baader-Meinholf Phenomenon fashion I was noticing public lands and markers from public lands in all my images. The Windley Key State Park sign, scroll scroll scroll, the Ice Age Trail markers, scroll, the Boat Launch sign at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in Grand Canyon National Park....they were everywhere.
I got engaged on Longs Peak in RMNP, married on the rim of the Grand Canyon in GCNP, and vacationed and honeymooned in national parks, preserves, state parks, and BLM land. All my geology field courses were in national and state parks, and even marine sanctuaries. Images aside, my cooler is covered in park stickers; and a shadow box in my hallway is full of pins from all the parks and trails my husband and I have visited together. I obviously love and utilize these public spaces. Intellectually I knew I used public lands both professionally and personally, but it really hit me just how important these lands are to me.
This apparent love affair needed an outlet. Some kind of project.
Step 1: close all OLD FILES folders and rejoice that I now have a much more refined taste in hiking backpacks and men.
Step 2: Google all the parks I went to. Look at the maps. Because I love maps.
Step 3: Notice that I have at least 4,000 more Colorado pictures than Oklahoma pictures. I do not live in Colorado. Pout a little.
Step 4: Check calendar. No Colorado trips soon.
Step 5: Google all public lands in Oklahoma. Get overwhelmed. Close computer.
Step 6: Pick a wildlife refuge to visit to start an Okie photo project.
My affection for the public lands of the west and the Rocky mountains is pretty evident with how many photo albums I have from those various trips. Despite having lived here for 4 years now, there is a conspicuous lack of Oklahoma imagery. Since I'm not much of a fisher or boater, I tend to stay away from the lakes (Also, alligator snapping turtles live here, guys. Guys. No.) and the same goes for the acreage that's set aside for hunting and wildlife management. I'm not much of a coyote hunter. Though, I could probably be convinced to go on a hog hunt because those things are terrifying, destructive, and invasive. Screw those things.
It's time to appreciate the land in my backyard. With the goal of trying to understand public land use in Oklahoma, I've decided to tackle some of my questions about the tiny swaths of green on the state map of Oklahoma, and the large patches of green to the south. Why was this acreage set aside for public use in the first place? What is the history of that land? How is it being managed, and for who? What are the current threats to that public acreage? These are the questions that I plan on exploring this coming year as I explore and visit Oklahoma's State Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, Bureau of Land Management acreage, Army Corp of Engineers land, and more.
I plan on visiting as many sites as my schedule allows and on writing a short piece about each excursion. When it's all said and done I would like to have a set of images from Oklahoma's varied public lands that hopefully illustrate and answer my questions that I outlined above.
Wish me luck. We have a lot of poison ivy and wild hogs.
*Note: light to moderate swearing ahead.
The Good and The Bad
Hikers, runners, and backpackers are all a bit masochistic. We kinda like the suffering. Well, I guess I do at any rate. If you've completed a trail that's over the, oh let's say, 5 mile mark- you've probably broken at least a sweat and made your way past the "drive-thru" park visitors that are there just for the social media check-in cred. So you've worked for it a little bit. You're probably not doing it to just hashtag the hell out of the act. There's always some kind of duality that comes with being on the trail, the good, and the bad. And depending on how long your hike is and how good your shoes are, the ugly.
The good! The bad.
The vistas! The bugs.
Being a small percent of the population that has "done it"! The hundreds of training hours.
Pushing your limits! Pushing your limits.
Post trail steak dinner! No ice cream for two months before trip.
Seeing wildlife! SEEING ALARMING WILDLIFE.
But it's this dichotomy that brings us back time after time. There's something to be said for having to endure a little pain and discomfort in order to get that goody of seeing a sunrise from a hard won vantage point. Cracking open your summit soda/beer and basking in the accomplishment of what you did, immersed in the beauty that surrounds you..... sure does beat anything back at camp and the low hanging fruit of seeing stuff from the car. But you must have a respect for the outdoors and nature that comes with these excursions. The trail can have other plans for you, poor weather can whip up, roaming critters may cross your path, or you may eat and drink something that makes your sick for hours while you try and get back home. But all the way you are hopefully enjoying a majority of the experience while absorbing new sights.
My husband and I train hard for our adventures. Right now we are training for a trip out west where we will off-road, hike, camp, and backpack for about 2.5 weeks. This whole trip will culminate in an attempt at a non-stop Rim to Rim to Rim hike of the Grand Canyon in Grand Canyon National Park. Every week we clock in about 30 some odd miles of training interval hikes/runs to prepare to traverse 43 miles with 20,000' of elevation change across the canyon. It's hard work. But do you know what has my palms sweaty? Dealing with the other park visitors. The South Rim visitors stress. me. out. This is the dichotomy that has me worried now:
Sharing the trail with like-minded outdoors folks! Sharing the trail with folks who give zero fucks.
Thousands of hapless park visitors bumbling along with their phones in tow, Instagramming pictures (is that still a thing? Is there a new thing now? Am I out of touch already?) of their friends feeding ground squirrels an ice cream cone at the Bright Angel trailhead. Come. On.
Like me, you've probably seen the news stories that have been cropping up regarding our state and national parks, and it can really be distilled down to this: an escalation in park visitor self entitled bullshit. You probably heard about the tourists that put a baby bison in their car in Yellowstone "because it was cold". The instagram "artist" that defaced rocks across 7 national parks with her "art" and hashtags. The guy in Yellowstone that left the boardwalk and died by falling into a geyser. The three drunk idiots that broke into a restricted habitat and killed at least 1 out of 115 remaining Devils Hole pupfish left in the world in Death Valley. I could go on. For a lot longer than I would like. And I'm not even linking to the animal selfies that have gotten people killed and gored, because I don't want to encourage any more people into thinking that this is acceptable behavior. So what's going on?
Poor Yellowstone National Park has been putting up with the brunt of the bullshittery this year and it has gotten so bad that Yellowstone has hired a social scientist to study the human visitors of the park. Serious. That's happening, right now. Our collective behavior has gotten so poor that the park needed to hire a social scientist to try and figure out why we are behaving so badly. Are we just shitty? Or is the park missing out on teaching moments? Do we need to have some counselling sessions with the parks so we can tell them how, "they don't let us do anythiiiiiiiiiiing!". I'm curious as to what the data will turn up this season. Because my bet is on: 1) social media self involvement and, 2) ineffective enforcement of park rules and regulations.
And you know what? I'm sick of it. I'm so over it.
I'm getting ready to head back "up North" and show my husband where I took my first baby steps as a geologist. I want to photograph some of these special places from my past and try and capture some of that wonder I had as a freshmen geology student. Because you know, rocks are neat. But I know I really won't get to go back in time, because Pinterest is a thing now. And one of my favorite places which used to be a locals-only hang out now has at least a mile of overflow parking along side a farm road. It's a tiny little DNR run wilderness location with an easy little walk up to a gorge with waterfalls. And it's all over Pinterest. 10 Best Kept Secrets In Wisconsin! (#wisconsin #badgerstate #waterfall #naturephotographer #nalgenebottle #cup). Not anymore, but thanks Pinterest! This little place just can't handle the traffic. As a landscape photographer I've begun withholding location information on many of my photos, just so I'm not contributing to the abuse of natural areas via social media. Get yourself out there, folks. Check out books, park maps, whatever. But don't immediately check the hashtags to find the location that will yield you the image that will get you the most likes (#notgettingmylatlong). And if you are able bodied, don't just do the easiest thing. There's so much more to see beyond the 1 mile radius beyond your car. Because right now the parks are being loved and hashtagged to death, and with some of this new found love (I'm looking at you, "Find Your Park" 2016 centennial campaign) it's like a python squeezing the National Parks bunny to death.
I live very close to a small nature preserve where I hike and run almost every day. Last week my husband and I went for a run and every damn thing in the preserve was tagged. Tree leaves, the rusted out cisterns that once held our city water, rocks (!!!), and the paved trail all were tagged with blue spray paint. I'm surprised the box turtle that always hangs out at about the half mile mark wasn't tagged blue on his shell. This is a park that I have taken senior portraits in, family pictures, and even an award winning nature photo. And now this place is marred because of one person. My park. Our park. And I'm pretty sure you would be unhappy if I went and tagged your garage. Just like how you should be unhappy someone tagged your public land. Because it's our land, and we should be treating it respectfully.
So I'm done. I'm done being a nice hiker and ignoring people being dumb. Homeland Security has a slogan, "If you see something, say something". And you better believe it that I'm going to start saying something. Do you see someone treating your parks inappropriately? Stepping off trail? Feeding wildlife? Getting too close to wildlife? SAY SOMETHING. Tell a park official. Tell law enforcement. Tell the parents. Tell the offender! Keep everyone and yourself accountable. Our public lands are too fragile and can't keep pace with this kind of passive-half-attentive-visitor. Take pride and ownership for what is ours.
Tonight I'm headed to my little preserve. I'm going to do my run. And then I'm taking pictures. I'm taking pictures of every bit of graffiti I can find and sending it local law enforcement (#Iknowaguy) and posting it to my local social media pages. Because we all need to do what we can to keep our parks happy.
2015 has been a weird year. Professionally things have been goofy since the downturn (The $10-$20 bucks you save at the pump now? Those are my friend's jobs. Ouch.), and the desire to add something to the Win Column has been great. The husband and I had been planning for an epic jaunt up the John Muir Trail in California, and visions of being on top of Mt. Whitney on my 30th birthday seemed like a solid "W".
But, plans change. My regional office closed. Some months later I would turn 30 in a rainstorm in Colorado trying to get night sky photos, and I would have a new job that thankfully wasn't in Houston. But in June, I didn't know any of this. Panic was high, and we needed a vacation. The husband and I decided to head up to Rocky Mountain National Park and hit up some of the trails we have missed over the years. We hadn't been back since our engagement trip in 2013, which was unfortunately cut short when we were trail running down Timberline Falls trail and I threw my head back and did my best Julia Roberts over-smile and yelled "I feel like a gazelle!" and two seconds later rolled my ankle and tore some tendons. That's an entire blog post.
So we were headed back. I threw our crampons, ice axes, down sweater jackets, poles, and hats into our gear box, "just in case" we decided to do some more serious hiking. This should be noted. This was all me. I had been checking the weather and reading the trail condition reports on the Keyhole for a couple weeks, "just in case". Again, all me. No prompting by the husband.
The drive through Kansas was uneventful as per usual, the favorite gas stops and signs ticked by ("Wakeeny, KS: It's Affordable!", and the weird Wheat Jesus billboard by Colby). Except, the husband hadn't really slept the night before. Like, at all. I drove 11 or so of the 12 hours as he deliriously chugged coffee, and both of us were showing some wear by the end of the drive. A fitful night in camp now brought the husband's sleep total to 6/36 hours, and mine around 10/36. Cool. We drove around the park, lazily got coffee, and just happened to check trail conditions on Longs with a ranger. He sized me up as I asked him how Longs was looking, and I immediately backtracked with "oh, we've made it to the Ledges before," - gotta establish that trail cred. He looked relieved and got an iPad with updated trail pictures from the week before; great snow pack a week ago! Maybe we could boulder hop and follow snow trails instead of picking our way from boulder tip to tip, but we should probably scamper up there soon if we were going to go. Some warm days were coming and conditions were going to change rapidly. Ah hell. Let's just go climb that damn thing in the morning.
Now focused and with a plan, we gathered our gear and repacked our packs, taped our feet and powdered our boots. I had the bright idea of wanting to get sunrise pictures at dawn in the Boulder Field. This pushed our start time from 2 AM to 11 PM. That's 11 PM, tonight. 11 PM the first full day at elevation. 11 PM the night we were supposed to get some sleep. 3:30 PM rolled around and we decided to have a nap to try and get some rest.
Pots and pans clanked, children shrieked, and beers were being cracked. Our camp was full of happy awake people enjoying their vacations., not full of masochistic hikers in the middle of sleep deprived madness gearing for a climb.
Flies landed on my arms. The bright sun cooked the tent. The husband sighed loudly. The loudest, slappiest runner circled our tent roughly 900 times. The husband jaw started to clench, "Fuck it, let's just get up and get pictures of the sunset". So we did that.
Husband Sleep: 7 hours in 48
Kelsey Sleep: 11 hours in 48
We got to the trail head around 9 that night, already a bit fuzzy on what day it was, and fitfully dozed in the Jeep until 11 pm when it was finally go time. We loaded or packs on our backs, full of snacks, iodine tablets to save weight on packing in and out all of our water, and our trusty first aid kit.
For once I didn't feel like I was sucking air. I was the pace setter and worked up a nice resting hiking pace up the mountain. The landmarks ticked by again, Goblin's Forest melted behind us in the dark, and we were making excellent time. A little too good honestly. At this rate we would be at the Boulder Field well before dawn. I tried out some tripod-less night shots which came out predictably horrible. Which is unfortunate, because that was one of the best night sky vistas I have ever seen. The Milky Way looked like it was going to come crashing down on us. The revelry in the night sky was quickly replaced by how damn windy it was. The slight breeze we had felt in the Goblin's Forest was now a full blown icy gale on Mills Moraine.
The Milky Way rotated around us and gradually faded, leaving behind a desolate sky, and the now ever present icy wind. This was... less than awesome. The husband's knees were acting up, seeing as he had broken both of them at the tibial plateau in the past, it wasn't surprising. There's just so many boulders to trip over in a moraine, you can never have a consistent pace or gait. Every step up is wobbly and unsteady, and our trekking poles that we (finally) admitted to needing came is handy. It's like hiking in 4 wheel drive. The ice was starting to be more common, as were the stretches of snow pack. We switched our poles to the carbide tips and snow guards and continued hiking in our head lamp bubbles.
We made it to Boulder Field, way too early. Sunrise wasn't until 5 ish, and it was more like 3:45. The quick ascent we made up 2,000' left us a both a bit light headed and head achey since we were still not acclimated to the elevation, and it was so cold. Seriously cold. We wrapped up in our emergency blanket and snuggled into what protection we could find next to a boulder, but the wind was seriously blowing from all directions. There wasn't much relief.
Once the sky lightened and sunrise finally got going, I abandoned the husband to his emergency blanket and scampered around the boulders trying to make the most of the light that we sacrificed so much sleep to get.
The Boulder Field was full of patchy, crunchy snow. The snow pack we had seen in the photos from a week ago had clearly melted, refrozen, and become immensely shitty. It was frozen on top with a thick sheen of ice, and underneath was a mystery. Some steps there was solid snow, other steps you would sink up to your shin or more. We strapped our crampons on to our boots and trekked up and around the bulk of the boulders, kicking our toes in with every step. Kick kick step. Kick kick step. On and on. It was exhausting. But the wind had finally stopped, and the sun was beginning to warm us up. Passing by our engagement rock from 2013 we didn't really even pause. The hike was already taking on a much more serious feel, as we could see crevasses created by snow and rocks that were bone breakers, just everywhere. Not to mention the spikes attached to our feet that I was having a hell of a time not nicking my shins with.
Key Hole Route
We passed through the Key Hole, just as before. It was even more Mordor like this time. It was all ice, snow, and rock. So much more ice and snow than before. Many of the bulls eyes that mark the trail were covered with snow, but the tracks from previous climbers were visible at precarious angles.
Crampons off. Crampons on. Axes out. Axes away. Loading and unloading gear at each marginally safe resting spot was tedious and exhausting. The thing about the Key Hole route is that it is a jerk. Seriously. You hike all that way to the Boulder Field, up to the Key Hole, cross over to the west side of the mountain, then lose hundreds of feet of elevation climbing down. Then you have to hike back UP to where you were on the east side of the mountain, with more hiking UP to go. Except on the west side of the mountain there's those 1000' drops for you to tumble down.
Kick kick step. Stab ice ax into snow. Kick kick step. Pause. Panic a little. Fight down panic. Repeat.
I can't remember how I came to be the trail blazer across the ledges- but it was probably my turn and I hadn't been pulling my weight earlier. The snow had become even worse through this section, and the path we were following from some brave hiker the week before was clearly forged in different conditions. This climber (who was at least 7 foot tall judging by his giant foot prints) had a goofy way of walking, or had two right feet. Periodically his foot print would slip down what would have been soggy wet snow, and he would, I'm assuming, use his spider long legs and just scale back to the trail in one giant step and keep going. I hated this guy. His yeti foot prints were now glossed in ice, and I needed to make safe steps in between his giant strides for us to walk in. Kick kick step. Hack with the ax.. Water was oozing and trickling out from underneath the ice that was our path in an unsettling way. Chancing a glance back on our trail showed a single foot track across a slope of ice and snow that was just barely covering the semi sheer rock underneath. Uh ok. Don't be a baby.
The ledges were easily the scariest thing I have done up until that point. So much jaw clenching and teeth gritting. I wish I had pictures of it. But I was too preoccupied with not falling off the mountain in a heap to care about stupid things like cameras and documenting the stupidity/awesome. I was busy wielding my ice ax in what I can only explain as genetic memory of my Viking heritage.
We finally made it through the ledges, with wobbly legs from fatigue. Looking up, it was the Trough, Home Stretch, and Summit. About 1000' to go. There was no trail in the Trough, which was covered in waist deep snow, with boulders underneath. Crampons and axes out, each step was getting increasingly dangerous. The sun was shining into the Trough, warming the snow surrounding us. It was eerily quiet, with only my heartbeat roaring in my ears. Each step was a gamble. One step would be solid and we could gain ground, the next we punched through the ice crust and sank up to our knees or thighs, and sometimes stumbled on boulders with our feet. Next step, who knows. There was no way to keep your balance on the 45 degree incline, and the snow was deteriorating around us. Soon, there would be no trail to follow on the way back, and the chances of snow and ice breaking away from the mountain with us on it increased.
I made the husband call it this time. It was time to turn around, as it was, we were a bit past the "safely get back" point and had reached the "try and get back" point.
All in all, it took us 6 hours to traverse 2 miles. It was the most nerve wracking and demoralizing two miles ever.
Back to Boulder Field
Axes out. Crampons away. The real danger now was getting through the Boulder Field safely- our path from that morning was melting rapidly and sheets of snow on the Diamond was sliding down into the bowl below. Glissading was fun until I remembered that there were boulders under me that wanted all my bones broken.
You might be thinking, "oh that's sad! Those dumb idiots didn't make it up again! At least they get home safe now. Look, they're even sledding down the mountain on their asses!". Ha. Ha. Shut up.
We made it down the steepest part of the Boulder Field, now it was time to pick our way gingerly through the minefield of boulder holes and icy pools. Our poles out, we stabbed the snow to test it to see if it would hold our weight- about 50% of the time the snow would collapse and reveal a pit between two boulders that were perfect for falling into. Nope. I wanted to go home now. This was bullshit. The pictures were totally not worth it. I was a total jerkface for dragging myself and my husband up here because I had mountain fever or some shit.
The husband was a number of paces ahead of me, locked in his own dehydrated, altitude sick hell when I put my right foot on a boulder, shifted my weight forward, and slipped.
I can see my boot. I see it on the boulder. Next I see my boot punch through the snow next to the boulder, and I'm falling down into a rock well. As I'm falling I thought "Ok. I need to not fall forward, I'm going to get pinned and break something. Scream now,". Animal brain took over and as my right leg went into the hole and became wedged between two boulders I pushed my hands in front of me to prevent myself from bending at a joint that shouldn't bend, and slammed my shin and knee into the rock in front of me. Something popped in my knee, I made a face, and pain sensors in my leg went bonkers.
I was wedged up to my crotch between rocks and snow, with my foot stuck under another boulder. Animal brain gave way to I'm An Idiot brain and all I could think of was "something is broken, and I've ruined another Rocky Mountain vacation". The husband rushed over to me as I repeated "I think I'm OK, I think I'm OK", and he dug me out with his ax and carefully extricated me from the rock well.
First assessment: no bones sticking out of the skin! Second assessment: no streams of blood! I need a beer. I was doing awesome and wasn't going to have to cut my leg off with my leatherman. A nasty knot was forming on my shin, and my knee had some impact abrasions on it. But superficially, everything looked like it was going to be fine. I scrapped my emergency plan of taking the day to get out of the Boulder Field, and then waiting for rescue at Mills Moraine.
I was able to bear weight on it- in fact, it felt sort of ok for how hard it seemed like I smacked it. Adrenaline is a hell of a thing. I got my poles out and walked like a baby deer for a few steps on the snow, using the poles as forearm crutches. I quickly found out that if I pivoted even a tiny bit on the knee joint, say, from slipping while stepping on all the damn snow that surrounded me, my knee would give way and do some weird hyperextending and suddenly the stars would come back out at midday. I had managed to not cry until I had to start sliding down the trails the husband was making for me, in my own little pain tunnel. Tears were streaming down my face, utterly miserable. If I told the husband that something was broken or torn, it would make it worse somehow. Make it real. Make this whole scenario just a little bit more dangerous. Unfortunately, the dehydrated, altitude sick husband was unaware of my ever growing fear that something was broken or torn in my knee, and pressed on making me safe snow trails thinking that it was just my bruised up shin that was giving me trouble. His lady is a Viking! Bruised shins are nothing!
Miscommunication is a bitch.
After some rest and recombobulation at the end of the Boulder Field and admitting that "something is not ok", the husband realized that I was in fact, NOT hiking slow to conserve energy, and was in fact hiking slow because that's as fast as I could go. Each step down was a horrible pain puzzle- which way had the most gentle step down possible? Large steps were the worst, and after miles of supporting my weight on my left leg, and wrists from my poles, everything began to hurt. The sun was getting lower now, our sunburns mingling with our windburns from this morning. Whaaaaaa.
Out of the Boulder Field. Through Mills Moraine. Finally into the Goblins Forest. The shuffling down the mountain was going so slow that the husband was swatting mosquitoes off of me. Like I was a tired pack horse. Just take me off to a clearing and shoot me now. He took my pack for the last mile, carrying both our packs of gear when I just couldn't move anymore. I finally took a pain pill from the first aid kit and the husband forced me to take a couple bites of a power bar to combat the inevitable barfy feeling you get when you take narcotics on an empty stomach. Now I was a woozy jibbering idiot trying to stay upright and keep moving, "I just love you so much. shuffle shuffle. Really. I'm so sorry. shuffle shuffle. I think I'm going to throw up." This continued until we made it back to the ranger station.
7 agonizing miles later, and after 19 hours on the mountain, we made it down.
Husband sleep: 7 hours out of 72
Kelsey sleep: 10 hours out of 72
Turns out I broke my knee in the Boulder Field, and I wasn't being a baby about it. It's the same break that the husband has in both of his knees. Twins! We have one good knee between us. I'll need to save it for the next time we try this hike. Meanwhile, every time I step I think of it.
That damn mountain.
I feel as though everyone has their own personal white whale. Like Captain Ahab, you might stalk that elusive perfect, something. The most spectacular beer. The perfect girl (please stop stalking her, the notes you're leaving in her mailbox are getting creepy). The photograph that will finally get you into National Geographic. The list goes on. Whether it's personal or professional, having goals is a worth while thing to strive for and try to achieve. It challenges us and makes us better people. Supposedly. Or it turns you into a raging obsessive perfectionist that can only focus on one thing and aspects of that obsession leak over into your every day life. Did you see my new baby? Did you see how many curls I could do with my new baby? I can't wait until baby gets older, and I can get those bicep gains with lifting the baby more. Count how many baby curls I can do. My white whale has been attained by countless people, and even some very small children. That fact is honestly making me completely crazy and makes me grind me teeth at night. You see, there's this mountain.
Longs Peak is located in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and is one of the resident 14'ers (a peak over 14,000' in elevation). It sits taunting me with it's wide flat top and diamond shaped face. I hate this damn mountain. Back in 2009 I went to the Rockies for the first time on a geology trip, and my mid-western lungs sucked air at 9,000' and that was enough for me. I distinctly remember my instructor driving us to an overlook, pointing at Longs, and told us about the harrowing "hike" involved to get to the top. I shook my head, muttered something like, "fuck that." and promptly forgot about Longs. There were much more accessible rocks to look at. Like the ones next to the road.
Then in 2012 this jerkface mentions that he wants to climb Longs Peak and has never gotten anyone to try it with him. Wanting to impress him (this particular jerkface is incredibly sweet and handsome), I said we should go for it. I could totally climb this thing, and then maybe we would make out afterwards. 7 months later I'm following this handsome jerkface 13,100' up on Longs with an ice ax strapped to my pack. The heights I will go to for make outs. Theoretically, 14,000' up apparently; that's some follow through.
The 18 mile out and back main trail that summits Longs has named sections that have become a mantra in my head. Goblins Forest. Mills Moraine. Boulder Field. Key Hole. Ledges. Trough. Home Stretch. Summit. Reverse, and repeat. 18 miles of landmarks to tick off throughout the day to mark your progress. The stunted trees of the Goblins Forest that finally give way to the endless stumbley boulders of Mills Moraine, on to the damn Boulder Field where there is no trail, just boulder hopping and praying you don't break anything. Namely your head or legs. Because there's really no where for a rescue helicopter to come get you. Then the Key Hole. The Key Hole is where you pass between a gap in a craggy rock fin from one side of the mountain to the other. But it's so much more than that- it's where you pass from the sunny happy side of the mountain, to Mordor. The Key Hole Route is classified as a "Class 5 Scramble", which is the most technical climb you can do before needing ropes and additional climbing equipment. The Key Hole is a common turn-around point as many hikers poke their heads through the Key Hole and (rightfully) nope their way out of that situation and head home. The route is almost never completely dry, and there is usually some ice and snow still clinging around well into July.
We were climbing in early July, and to be on the safe side came equipped with crampons and ice axes, and of course my camera. There's not really... a trail. The Key Hole route is marked by painted bulls eyes on the rocks to give you guidance on where you should go and hopefully not kill yourself. Lots of hikers and climbers have been injured, and even lost their lives on this trail. A shelter was constructed on the east side of the mountain right at the mouth of the Key Hole as a memorial to a female climber that lost her life in a snow storm while trying to descend Longs. Alternatively, plenty of people have happily scampered through this section with no issues. Even children. I hate those children.
This trail had some seriously iffy spots. Lots of points to tumble down, where you just keep rolling. Like 1,000' worth of rolling. Really not my favorite. When I was 12 I was hiking near a stream in a ravine and memorably told my mom who I was hiking with, "I think I'm going to turn around now and go home". Predictably, my dear sweet mother told me to suck it up and not be a baby- keep hiking a little bit longer. Two steps later I slipped, fell 7 feet into the rocky stream below and hit my head on a rock.
Nine years later I become a geologist. You tell me that's not some Spiderman shit right there.
In the fall I dislocated my shoulder, gave myself a concussion, and needed stitches. I still have a dent in my forehead, decades later. So I have a little bit of a heights thing. I think I came by it honest. That first Longs hike in 2013, I clung to the boulders for dear life and made it through the worst part of the trail. We made it to the end of the Ledges when I slipped on a patch of ice with a 1,000' drop below me, totally lost my shit, and had to sit down for a little while. We turned around, I put my camera away because, Fuck. This. Shit. We had been training for months and I was devastated that I let my fear of heights get in the way of the summit- but I also didn't want to be that idiot mid-westerner whose body gets pulled out of a rock pile.
About 45 minutes later after assisting an altitude sick hiker, we ended up getting engaged at the Key Hole.
As far as hikes go, I've had worse.
All lovey and punch drunk, we got off the mountain having been within 1,000' feet of the summit, but it didn't seem to matter that much at the time. There would be more hikes! More trips! All in good time. The jerkface fiance was still irritated that we didn't make it to the top of Longs, me, less so. Until we got home and I was reviewing my pictures from the day. Dammit. That mountain was winning and being so smug that it beat me. The white whale had been passed on to me now too- when I said "yes" to his proposal I had no idea that I was also agreeing to this obsession for conquering the mountain.
2015- time for a rematch.
We spent a soggy evening coaxing a fire along, if only for something to do. The sun slipped behind the mountains early and left us in a dreary haze for the late afternoon and evening, which made photos crummy, even if there had been something to interest me. I wandered around the camp with my Nikon d7100, looking at bark. Nah. The stream. Nah. Spiders. Ugh.
Trail Day 2.
Breakfast was delicious, and it is always my favorite meal when camping or backpacking. Mostly because of the coffee. I spent an entire afternoon packing our meals into compact packages, and was so pleased with myself that I gloated about what an awesome, brilliant, efficient backpacker I was. Meals had vitamins, protein, carbs, and fats. I picked up some of the Starbucks VIA's specifically for the trip, but could only find the strong french roast. I also scored a great find for bacon infused jerky links. This will be important later.
Camp breakdown was quick, but still soggy. Everything was soaked from the day before with sweat and the periodic rain showers. Nothing had dried overnight and our packs felt extra heavy as we hefted them on and headed back on the trail. There was no warm up, since we had camped beside a stream the next section of trail was straight up another mountain, because that's all this trail did. Straight up. Shitty summit. Straight down. Stream. Repeat.
We quietly marched onward. It was so.... quiet. Weirdly quiet. The birds stopped chirping. There was no wind, making the thick woods feel even more close and suffocating as we sucked in the hot, soupy air. There was a crash of a large branch behind us, followed by this overpowering wafting smell that seemed to roll over the trail- it smelled like a litter box and rotten meat.
Big kitty cat.
We never saw the cat, but the smell lingered and small twigs broke behind us for some time. My husband and I eventually came down from "we are being stalked right now" heightened awareness to the mundane plodding along that defined the trip, and summitted four more peaks along the way. 15 miles in the book for the day and we finished up the horrible north-south trail, and were making good time on the east-west section of the trail that would loop us back to our jeep.
Trail Day 3.
The map was examined. Distances were estimated. Times estimated. Weather and levels of irritation taken into account. We figured we had close to 17 miles back to the jeep, over what looked like pretty easy terrain. A few more pointless river crossings at near flood stage, a gander at an unimpressive waterfall, and a road march on an equestrian trail would get us back to the jeep by dinner. Screw this trip.
We were machines. We ate up the trail. It rained, a lot. The rain gear was pointless, since it was like wearing a steamy wet trashbag. Our new rain pants stayed dry in our packs totally unused. But who cares! We were going home! Nothing could stop us! A coffee break would be great!
Lunch was a terrific break. The sun was out! Coffee break! I couldn't feel my feet anymore! Whatever! The map was re-examined, and we ate close to a bridge that was an easy landmark on the map. Re-fueled by coffee, jerky, crackers, and dried fruit, we began our road march. Only about 8 miles back to the jeep. We had this in the bag. Arkansas was not going to win; and we decided we were never going to come back. Our Arkansas disdain fueled us with super human hiking speed.
Kill Me Now.
If this were a movie, this is where you as the viewer would go, "well this is going too well. Remember how they focused on those coffee packets earlier? Wasn't that slow motion coffee drinking sequence kind of forced and obvious? Someone is going to get it". And you would be completely right. Unfortunately, I don't tend to watch those kinds of movies and missed all the signs.
A quarter mile down the road, things... were not going well in my stomach. You've had that feeling before. Your gut gurgles painfully and swirls around and you realize that your spouse is going to bear witness to things that they can't un-see or un-know about you. Your stomach contents are coming out one way or another, but your body just hasn't decided on an avenue yet.
Mine decided on the southerly route. It decided on that route 8 times every quarter mile. I was downing the chew-able Imodium from our first aid kit like it was candy, but with no relief. This went on for 6 hours, and our machine road march slowed dramatically.
On top of my stomach being in a full revolt against what I can only assume was a bad reaction to the strong coffee and fatty jerky, the trail just wasn't right. The road gradually deteriorated into a muddy track. More water crossings. I felt uneasy about the route, but hoped for the best. My poor sick brain could only worry about two things, 1) I hope we packed enough toilet paper to get me through this, and 2) I hope I don't get dehydrated and die in Arkansas.
We hadn't seen a single good trail marker since lunch, and I hadn't been able to keep anything down since then either. Life was not looking good with the 6:00 pm sun slanting through the insufferable trees.
Eventually we stumbled into the flood plain of the confluence of two streams, and we found out the horrible truth- we were back on the north-south trail roughly 7 miles north of the jeep. Unknowingly, we had taken one of the logging roads that had taken us gradually north west, instead of south west, because nothing in this damn place was marked.
This revelation was pretty terrible. We had already done about 18 miles of hiking, and we had 7 more to go. One of the things we had used to keep our spirits up over the course of the day was repeating, "at least we don't have to do the horrible north-south trail again!" but with more cursing thrown in for emphasis.
Ha! Joke's on you, dummies!
But we did it. The headlamps were strapped on, and I ate sugar packets to keep something in my system until my body eventually stopped revolting. We made plans together about what we would do for self rescuing in the event one of us went down and pussied out. We're romantic like that.
We dragged ourselves to the jeep by 10:15 pm. 25 miles down in one day on our least favorite trail.
Shittiest hike, ever.
There are times in your life when you think you have come up with fantastic ideas. Like really, really, good ones. Someone must have thought that the mullet was a good idea for instance. Me cooking up a four day backpacking trip in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas with my husband was one such idea. We were going to test some new gear on the trail, get our feet wet with some "mountain" backpacking before our (then) planned backpacking trip on a portion of the John Muir Trail, and I was going to scope out some potential field stop locations for a geology field trip I was planning for work. It was going to be the best. It really was.
First, there are really no maps to speak of for what we were interested in. We scoured the internet, spent a silly amount of money for an alltrails.com membership (which has been languishing, forgotten, until about 5 seconds ago) doing research, and turning up just small jpg's of what appeared to be scans, of a photocopy, of an original trail map written on the back of a napkin. The scales were off, markers were largely absent, and distances were very "meh". But I'm a dogged geologist, and I make maps for a living, right? I stitched together a glorious google earth map of what appeared to be the ring trail in question, ran it through the plotter, then taped the shit out of it for weather proofing.
Weather proofing. It was late May, and during this time in Oklahoma and Arkansas we were seeing some serious flooding. Like, taking out roads and bridges kind of flooding. The ring trail in question was littered with small creek water crossings, and a few major river crossings, which I had discovered in my research had gotten rather flashy during a storm and killed some hikers. Just things to note. We bought rain pants in preparation for monsoon conditions. Don't want your legs to get wet while you're drowning!
We set off. My husband and I drove the five or so hours to the national forest and spent the better part of the next morning looking for the trail head. Not off to a great start. We finally found the trail head after driving down nameless unmarked logging road after road, thoroughly confusing the GPS on the Jeep. We finally set off on the N-S section of the trail which boasts being the hardest trail in Arkansas with 8 mountain summits in just 7 miles. We scoffed at the idea of this being difficult, I mean, we had just done the Rim to Rim hike in the Grand Canyon last year in 14 hours. Arkansas can't touch us.
Being a reader of a photography blog (which is starting out nicely as a hiking misadventure blog) I don't expect you to know what novaculite is. It's a type of microcrystalline quartz that is particularly sharp, slippery, and generally nasty. The first few miles of the trail is only novaculite. We are basically hiking on wet arrowheads. Trail conditions didn't so much as deteriorate as we traversed further north, as they didn't really exist to begin with. The goat path of a trail that we were following shot straight up the first mountain, and disappeared off into the green tunnel of doom we would spend the next three days trying to escape.
My husband and I are not cranky people by nature. We sorta like throwing ourselves into challenging hikes and situations, then in the middle of it look at each other like, "well, time to get ourselves out of this nonsense now". Let's just say that there has been more than one self rescue in our relationship. But shit we were cranky about our current situation.
Giant mosquitoes hovered around us, just looking for a spot that we missed with the bug spray and occasionally throwing caution to the wind and going for a sweaty throbbing vein on a forehead. The humidity was unbearable. I already sweat through and soaked my pack after the first mountain ascent. A 35 pound back with camera gear and camp supplies weighed heavily on my shoulders. I had already developed the plodding upward hiking walk of a pack horse. We didn't look up as we hiked, because there wasn't a damn thing to see. The trail was a green tunnel of overgrown trees crowding the trail, choking out any chance of a breeze, or any sun had it been shining. Because it was sprinkling off and on of course. We were already so wet with sweat that it didn't matter if it was raining or not, there was no way we could get any wetter.
And the views, the glorious views we didn't see. We summited three mountains that first afternoon. Straight up one side, summit with trees, straight down the other side, pointless water crossing. Repeat. No switch backs, no good resting rocks with pretty little vistas. Just the buzzing of the mosquitoes and our heads hungry for some sort of reward for all this effort.
3 miles down. 40 to go. Total pictures taken: 10. All crap.