Friday, July 8, 2011

Volunteer Vacation Part 4: Finishing Work

Day 7 - Work day
June 23th Thursday

I pack my sleeping bag and roll my ground pad before getting out of the tent. I'm trying to practice so when it rains I can do it with a bit less pain inside the tent. When I get out of the tent I toss everything else out also so the tent is empty. I pack my back pack as I go about knocking down everything. Which leads me to a gear discussion! The Big Agnes down Grouse Mountain sleeping bag I'm using for the first time is great. I like that it doesn't waste filling on the bottom of the bag, as that area gets compacted anyway. My sleeping pad fits and stays in a pouch on the exterior of the bag. Inside the bag there is a sack that works as a pillow. I have been putting my liner and a sweat shirt and it works fine as a pillow that doesn't run away since it is attached to the bag. The bag is plenty warm and very comfortable.
I am also quite happy with my 1-person Mountain Hardware Sprite 1 tent. For a one person I have enough room for my boots and my back pack inside the tent with me. I can hang a rope inside for a clothes line and hang a light from for reading. It's easy to setup and just an all-around comfortable piece of gear.
I am also using Mountain Hardware gaiters. They are the smallest I could fine. The required adding a strip of Velcro to the back of the boot to hold it down. They effectively keep debris out of my boots and they are lower than my socks so there is no discomfort.
After everyone is packed up and has their bags loaded with divided group food we set off for Company Creek. I take the lead and Joni follows 20 or 30 yards behind. Josh takes up the rear to make sure everyone in between is okay. Looking at the ground, and taking short steps, using hiking poles, and going slow enough not to get over-heated and exhausted takes much concentration. Soon We arrive at the bench, well before everyone else. Howard comes puffing up, saying he always sounds like that. Shortly the rest are in view. Joni and I start again just as they stop. Mostly to get out of the way, but also to be able to go the pace we want to go without being alone. Joni gives me plenty of space for both of us to have solitude, but keeps me in view for safety. The hike seems to go very quickly, the pack taking my thoughts away. One of the first days I noticed Bill would take very tiny but fast steps as he got to very steep sections of trail. I decided to try that method and found that it made the hills much more bearable, the weight of myself and the pack never being exposed to only one leg for a long period of time. I think this way really is advantageous to reducing energy consumption.
The views, the meadow, the mountains, and streams flow quickly by, I keep my posture upright, glancing where my feet are to go so I don't trip. The hiking poles, as always, help tremendously to keep footing and to pull myself up the incline. Soon enough we roll into camp and toss off our packs. The colorful bear pinata survived unscathed! I was half expecting to see bits of plastic and parts of apples scattered about in some macabre scene of fruity destruction.
I pull out the food bag and take my pack over to where my tent site lays. My site is slightly separated from the others and more difficult to get to. My tent site is down the river bank, about splitting the difference to the river and camp. However closer to camp, there are a bunch of maples that are very difficult to navigate, and it is much easier to get to my site by going through the rest of the tent area.
Where I pitch my tent the ground is very soft. The loam is springy and makes for a very comfortable mattress. The sound of the river is loud, so I know I will sleep like a rock!

After all of us have put up and stowed and stashed our gear we eat a quick lunch before heading out to work up the trail or back to finish up the first meadow. For a few tenths up the trail is in good condition, under the cover of the forest only some woody shrubs show any sign of encroachment. Right before another meadow lies a huge 3 foot diameter tree across the trail. Howard begins working on it. Knowing that it cannot be removed without months of swinging a Pulaski or a type of tool (cross-cut saw or chain-saw) that we don't have, Howard takes his time to put a step into it so it is easier to traverse. The next meadow is even worse than the first! It is nearly totally obscured in some places, with over hanging maples sagging into it as well. The Crew with the weed whips attack the meadow with a vengeance. A bit further ahead, between two meadows Josh and I come upon a very long tree across the path. From the path one can look up into the woods and see the the trees shattered trunk is ~150 feet up. There will be several cuts to get this off the trail, but it is green wood so the Pulaski is the tool for the job!

Josh and I first take turns chopping into the log here.
Then here, balanced on another log.
We continue chopping into the log. After the second cut the log is still too big to move or even leverage out of the way. It will take one more cut to make it manageable. But this evening it is not going to happen! We knock off at 5:30 and save the rest for the next day.
Josh, the cook at heart, begins making a macaroni and spinach dish that Joni has been raving about all week. They scored the missing secret ingredient from the kitchen at the restaurant in Stehekin the evening before. Besides making way too much the meal was planned perfectly! It was such a great back country meal!
A merry little fire crackled in the fire ring, giving us heat as the day cooled off. Joni, in her now characteristic way was freezing and got too close to the fire, an ember puts a hole in her Patagonia down jacket and later her pants!
After food is eaten and wine is drank, dishes are washed and bear bags are hung. I gladly go lay down on my earthen mattress, cradled by the sound of the river I slip off into sleep quickly.

Day 8 - Work day
June 24th Friday

I wake to a chilly morning! The elevation gain makes a difference this early. Liz and Bette are already up, with a warming fire going and coffee brewing. After dropping the bear bags we get out food for breakfast and lunch, and we cut up apples - trying to get them gone! Neither Liz nor Bette slept very well, as their tents were on a slight incline so they kept sliding down hill all night.
This is our first full day of labor, in that there is no extended hike to get to the work site and our day bags and lunches are staying in camp. We grab our gloves, water, and I grab a couple snacks and we head out to where all of us left off.In Josh's and my case we get back to the log, both of us doing something a bit easier for about an hour to warm up. Liz and I walk to the end of the next terribly over grown meadow and each of us pick a side of the trail and lightly and quickly weed whip our way back - this makes it a bit easier and much less intimidating on the next time through to do the finishing work. After working back to the log Josh and I take a few hours to get through it and move it off the trail.

Forward on the trail again to yet another meadow Josh and Howard work on a blow down as I go yet further forward still to the end of the meadows and after a few tenths of a mile I come back and weed whip the last meadow twice quickly on each side of the trail. I don't know how far forward the polishing will get, but I wanted to be able to at least say we finished the meadows.
At lunch we have a coffee break and I half-fix the loppers with a stick and some rope. Howard's idea of pulling down the cross and using the nail doesn't go over well and causes minor tension in the Crew.
I use the loppers for a couple hours after lunch right beyond camp, working very very slowly. I must say I hate the loppers! After 20 minutes of work you look back and see you have come 60 feet on the trail. So annoyingly slow. The worst part is that I could go back and do the same area for the same amount of time and still miss things. As I finish the worst 2 hours of the entire holiday Sanya walks up behind me and startles me - I was away in my own mind mulling over Howard's dis-like for crosses and my dis-like for loppers and how I missed Cara and how much longer until I got to stop using the stupid loppers. Sanya and I chatted for a bit before heading up the trail to find Josh.
I finally got to my pre-determined stopping point - about 600 feet of trail lopped - and hiked forward to the rest of the Crew. They were all stopped just prior to the last meadow, most everything else looking fantastic, wide open, and clear of debris. The CCTC really know how to make a trail look good!

We sit and talk with Sanya for awhile, she leaves an extra walkie-talkie battery and more nutmeg! It was very nice of her to come up and check in on us! I'm also glad she got to get up on a trail she hadn't been on and see what we had done.
At this point I hike to the end of the trail that we have seen to get GPS coordinates from my camera to give to Bill. As I wait for the camera to find the satellites, as it was being slow, I jogged up the trail to see if I could find 5-mile campsite. After jogging a quarter-mile further up and still not finding it I turned and walked back to our furthest point. Upon getting the coordinates we all walked back to the campsite.
The normal evening campsite routine ensued. Cooking, and chatting, hand-warming around the fire, finally washing dishes, brushing teeth and hanging food. After a long day of working hard without the relative ease of some of the day hiking in we were all pretty tired. I was glad we were finishing the following day. I was ready to get back to the valley floor.

Day 9 - Last Work day
June 25th Saturday

I continue the routine this morning of packing before I exit the tent. I slept well, but woke a few times thinking something was around. The ladies are up again with a fire going. I enjoy the fire and some coffee. As everyone packs up I wander around the campsite trying to absorb as many memories and feelings as I can. I want to carry this wonderful place with me. I want to be able to close my eyes on a cold winters day and instantly recall the sound of the water and wind, the smell of the river and forest, the soft caress of sun light filtered through a screen of maples leaves. This place is special, and will hold a special place in my mind and my heart. I walk into the Cathedral, possibly for the last time in this life.
I notice the shallow pool by the camp is even shallower, possibly the cooler last couple days has impeded the melt of the snow capped peaks. I hope across from rock to rock, turning to get pictures of the comfortable little campsite nestled in it's glade.

On the sand bar on the other side of the pool I find bear tracks. The picture doesn't do it justice, the claw and pad prints were completely defined in the pebbles of the sand bar. Last night a large bear went nosing through the campsite, probably 20 feet away from my tent! She had no interest in me, however. I guess the smells of our cooking made her investigate, or perhaps she crosses through here regularly on her nightly rounds.

After breakfast we pack up everything, before heading out we cache tools for whenever the next Crew gets up to these parts. We get the GPS position for the cache and hang the tools in a tree covered in plastic. We jokingly said we wanted to make a pirate map for Bill to find them - I think that would be a brilliant idea!
The remainder of the tools we took in hand to do some polishing work on the way down. With hiking poles lashed to our packs and tools in hand we went as a group slowly down the trail. We stopped in a few places to rack or weed whip the areas we deemed unfit. Most of the trail was fine, but we wanted the trail to be better than fine!
As we hiked down, again I often paused and gazed and these gorgeous sights that I would never see exactly as I saw right then, and may never see again. I couldn't let the last opportunity slip by just so I could make it to the bottom of the hill in record time. All of us were a bit nostalgic already, our pace was slow and full of stopping to smell the roses and see the sights. After a near flawless week filled with hard work, good talks, laughter, and cheer it was sad to be passing out of that back into society. Even as the reality of the place, the laid back nature of Stehekin, was just setting in, we packed our gear and head out.

At the bottom of the trail we lined up for a group shot. I asked Josh to move the truck over so we could set the camera at a good height for us to be gathered around the trail-head sign. After he parked the truck in it's new position a tiny chipmunk tumbled out of the wheel, shook his head and ran clumsily off! I think he was already making a home of it, or at least taking a nap in there!

Having one more night here in the valley before leaving in the morning, we went back to Harlequin Camp to the same campsite, and to hang out with the same frisky mule deer. We pitched our tents and took our turns taking piping hot showers. The water felt marvelous on sore muscles and dirty skin after being in the back country for a few days. I can see now how much I will appreciate a hot shower when I hike the AT!
After we cleaned and smelled less like sweat and more like flowers, Bill came by. He had an offer for Josh to go to him to Walmart. The real Walmart. In Chelan. By plane! Bill also mentioned something about taking others of us up in the plane if there was enough day light. I didn't get my hopes up for the second part, I was just happy Josh got to go! Bill and Josh left for the errand.
The rest of us took a cruise down to the landing. We bought some knickknacks for loved ones, and beer for the BBQ we were invited to at Bill's house in a little while. We sat on the deck, soaking in a very pleasant afternoon, drinking a beer. The views across and down Lake Chelan looked like an oil painting - the lighting impossibly perfect. After awhile of enjoying the moment we headed to Bill's.
In Bill's yard I could see a fire going in a pit to the side. His wife, son, and dog were waiting for us. We gathered and gave her our thanks. The picnic spread covered two tables, all the fixings one could think of, even chocolate chip cookies and other desserts. This families hospitality was astounding! I felt like they were welcoming us as family with open arms! We sat around the fire talking and eating, enjoying the afternoon.
A plane was heard. It's always easy to know when Bill gets home! A few minutes later Bill and Josh drive up, Josh has a big smile on his face, obviously a good experience. Bill says, "Who's next?" We all look at each other, and I suggest Shortest Straw. Liz, Joni, and I throw our names in on it. Bette and Howard abstain. I pull the first straw, I can't tell it's size. Liz and Joni both pull theirs - and theirs is the same length, meaning: I WIN! Giddy I get in the truck to head over to the air strip.

Bill explains the Husky is the bush plane used a lot in Alaska for being able to land on sand bars and having enough guts to get up and out of short valleys. The plane is a two seater, and I sit behind Bill. I get all strapped in and we have a quick radio check and safety check. Bill starts the plane and slowly makes his way down the runway, he mentions he has seen a bear fairly often at the end of the runway hanging out. No bear tonight though! Bill turns the plane around and we pick up speed, soon rushing down the strip, and then.... we are free from the constraints of gravity! At first I am apprehensive, looking and taking pictures helping to keep my mind off of the fact the in a vehicle lighter than my car I am soaring through the sky. Higher and higher we go, up the valley we I'd rode a bike a few days ago. The sun was incredibly bright, blindingly. The mountains on either side of us reflecting the evening glow. Below the tree tops a sea of dark green, in the distance and quickly approaching a small lake became visible. Bill continued to pilot the plane up the valley, pointing out Agnes Creek and following that valley. Beyond where we hiked the mountain-sides became impossibly rugged looking, snow and glaciers creeping down the sides of the mountains. Dead end valleys with waterfalls tumbling trough them called out to me. My mind jumped from apprehension and wonder to thoughts of exploration and awe. How hard would it be to get to those secluded places? When was the last time a human explored those places? Since there is no reason and no pass to cross I expect not many people have been in those secret places. I want to be in every one. I want to see every leaf and rock. I want to hold my arms to the sky and soak in the majesty of this land! The ride is intoxicating!

The higher we climb, the more apparent the snow covered tops become. In the valley I see a snow peak in the distance. Up here, this world apart in the sky, surrounded by these flying castles of snow, it is so apparent that another world is lost upon me. We crest a pass and get into Company Creek valley. Bill points out where 5 mile campsite should be located. He also points out the pass where Company Creek turns into Devore Creek Trail. The pass looks so tough! It is up an incredibly steep incline! Several thousand feet in a few short miles, looks very very tough hike. OH! I want to come back and do it! I want to taste, even briefly, this world in the sky with my boots on the ground!
Bill makes a few circles over Company Creek. I can see our trail! I can see where we cleared the meadows! I can even pin-point the Cedar Cathedral - awesome! I do get to see them again. The perspective of seeing everything I hiked in seconds rather than minutes or hours makes me marvel at the power of flight. As we head back towards the landing strip we bank out over the Stehekin landing and I see Bucknard Orchard below, it's much larger than I thought. The valley spread out below is beautiful, as we sink lower I can pick out details I have seen from the ground, rushing closer. As we hit the runway and begin slowing down I take a video, and I see several deer grazing to the side of the air strip. Bill executes the landing perfectly and soon enough I am climbing out of the bush plane, I am giddy, and speechless, all I can do is grin and thank Bill for the opportunity.
Back around the campfire in Bill's backyard Bill offers to make one more trip into the sky. Liz and Joni flip a coin. Joni wins. As they walk back toward the plane Bill pauses and calls Liz over. After a brief talk all three leave for the air strip. Come to find out, together they were light enough to cram into the back of the plane. He took both of them up at the same time! I'm very glad they got to both experience it! The joys of flight has a much newer meaning to me.
We stayed up later this night than any other the entire week. After many confections and some drinks we sleepily went back to the campsite just down the road and went to bed here in Stehekin for the last time.

Day 10 - Travel day
June 26th Sunday

The story draws to an end. Reliving through telling has been very good for me. Having these thoughts and memories floating around inside my head, ready to be half forgotten had me worried. I am sure I have forgotten many of the specifics of the trip already. What I haven't forgotten was what I felt when I was there. I really tried to convey that here in this blog, so years from now on some low-day, or during a cold snow-day, I can look back and fondly remember the feel of the Washington sun on my face, hear the rushing waters, see the nodding plethora of wild flowers in my minds-eye, and smell the pine trees. I hope I've learned something, not only from living the experience, but from re-writing it and reviewing it, and trying to boil down all the inane memories into something enjoyable to read, something that not only I can identify. Life is about learning and love. I constantly strive (aka struggle) for both in all things!
This last day went pleasantly enough, with all the packing and hustle of leaving a place. We stopped by Bucknard Orchard and read it's history and stepped back in time. The property was gorgeous, as it was from the sky the evening before. We made a few other short stops at the Bakery and the craft store before boarding our boat.

One final story about the giving nature of the people in Stehekin. A woman was celebrating her 90th birthday and wanted to see some Petroglyphs on the other side of the lake. Her grand-daughter asked if there was anyway her grand-ma could get a ride over. A token act of volunteerism was required, and the grand-mother got to have a cruise over with us as we were on our way out. I'm glad she had the idea, I'm glad we were able to go with her! To see ancient history painted on a wall and to know others had been here before and loved these mountains too...