When it came to running Cross Country in high school, I was a scrub…a bottom of the barrel B-teamer…the guy who spent a decent amount of each practice and race walking instead of running. And I was totally fine with that. Several of my friends were really good runners, and our team competed for Conference championships each year. While I had absolutely no part in the contending for or winning of those championships I still ended up in the team pictures adorned with the words “Conference Champions,” looking every bit the part of a major contributor to success. My scrubness was so blatant that at one practice during my Senior year, our coach bypassed giving me and 2 other guys the time requirements for our 3 mile run, and instead turned to us and said, “Just finish the 3 miles.” Needless to say, “Just finish” became our rallying cry for the remainder of the season.
You see, my entire goal for running Cross Country was to get in shape for basketball season. I knew that the occasional open gym, and the once a week conditioning sessions hosted by the coaches wouldn’t be enough to prepare me for basketball tryouts and the ensuing season. What Cross Country offered wasn’t an opportunity to excel and compete for All-Conference honors, but instead it was a chance to build the conditioning necessary to finish the 408 down and back, full-court sprints that would happen in basketball tryouts without keeling over. What it also provided was a chance to develop tendinitis in both of my knees.
While I’ve never been limited by pain in my knees as a result of the pounding they took in my short-lived “distance” running career, my increasing love of hiking and backpacking would often raise an awareness of the fact that my knees (and ankles for that matter) are much less than superhuman. Some days would end with a bit of tightness that stretching or a few ibuprofen would alleviate, but in each case there was also that creeping realization that with increasing age comes these increasing aches and pains. After a backpacking trip a few years ago, I realized that the time had come to be proactive about the health of my knees and ankles. In my case, being proactive meant investigating these things called trekking poles.
One of the first times I saw someone hiking with trekking poles I remember asking myself, “Why are they using ski poles during the summer time?” My impression of trekking poles was that they were for older hikers, or those that like to have all kinds of shiny gear with them for appearance sake–they were an expensive alternative to just finding a big stick laying on the ground in the woods. The need for them, and their purpose in general, was completely lost on me. It goes without saying then that I didn’t have the slightest clue that good trekking poles are built around shock absorbing springs that can take a pretty serious amount of strain off of your hips, knees and ankles. When my investigation of trekking poles revealed this fact, it was a game changer.
Simply put: my trekking poles have been one of the best purchases I’ve made for backpacking. Since I’m able to absorb the pounding of walking downhill with a heavy pack while also alleviating the strain of pulling the extra weight uphill by redistributing some of that energy and effort to the poles and my upper body, I’ve found that I can carry heavier loads for further distances with far less tightness or pain. Additionally, their ability to provide stability on unstable ground, serve as tent poles in a pinch, be the stabilizing portion of a splint in a worst case scenario, help in creek crossings, and even be a holder of copious amounts of duct tape make them a very useful tool to have in the back-country. The main thing they’ve provided for me however, is a confidence that my knees, ankles, and hips are much more likely to hold up in the midst of any ascent or descent–a confidence that came in handy last summer when Becky and I hiked the Northern Loop Trail at Mt. Rainier.
The Northern Loop is a horseshoe shaped trail that connects with a portion of the 93 mile long Wonderland Trail, forming a 35 mile loop that begins and ends at the Sunrise Visitor Center. Hiking this trail to celebrate our 1st wedding anniversary won out over a couple of other options because of its close proximity to Seattle (which meant it would fit nicely into a small window of time), we knew it would offer incredible scenery, and the reviews of it on-line told us that it would probably be the most demanding trail we had ever done. What we failed to notice in our research is that you climb somewhere between 9,000 and 9,500 feet over the course of those 36 miles–which means that you also drop somewhere between 9,000 and 9,500 feet as well. When you combine those two numbers you end up with 36 miles of steep climbs and steep descents, and very little flat or moderate grade sections in between. In fact, over the entire 36 miles there were only 4 sections of trail that were flat for more than a few feet: one was when we cut through a small corner of an area called Grand Park–an expansive field that was at least 3-4 football fields wide and probably 8-10 football fields long (it literally looked like the entire top of a mountain had been sliced cleanly off); one was a wild flower meadow that stared directly at Mt. Rainier; one was the top of an absolutely beautiful mountain pass that required an absolutely brutal climb to reach; the final one was the walk through the parking lot. The rest of the trail alternated between a calf, lung, and thigh burning 1,500-2,000 foot ascent or descent.
But while our research failed to reveal the continual steepness of the trail, it also understated the sheer beauty of what we would find there. Over the 36 miles we waded through waist deep wildflowers, refreshed our legs and feet in snowmelt creeks and lakes, passed through pristine forests of towering old-growth trees, camped on a ridge above a massive glacier and fell asleep to the sound of the ice cracking and moving, and spent an entire morning following in the fresh tracks of a mountain goat. At the end of every steep climb we were rewarded with some kind of an astounding view: blown open views of Mt. Rainier, sheer rock cliffs that exploded with color in the last rays of the evening sun, or mountain lakes sitting at the top of remote mountain passes whose waters were as blue as the sky.
The beauty contained in those 5 days of hiking couldn’t be crammed into a year’s worth of blog post words, so I’m going to stop my meager attempts. Instead, I’m going to let pictures that we took during the trip do the talking. Usually these “Favorite Gear” posts contain a story of one event that happened while using whatever piece of gear is being highlighted. That isn’t possible this time. The one event that I will forever associate with these trekking poles is this 5 day trip spent celebrating a year of marriage, but also celebrating the very essence of beauty that can be found in Creation.
I use to think that the only shoes one should hike in were hiking boots. That all changed on a three day backpacking trip with some youth in the Summer of 2006. By the end of that 15 mile trip my feet were blistered to the point that finishing the hike in Chacos seemed a better option than continuing in my boots. Meanwhile, the leader of the hike spent most of the trip praising the light-weight yet sturdy and durable nature of his new trail runners.
Now I’m not blaming the entire blister-episode on my boots–it could have been as much user error as boot error–but a short while after that trip I found myself in R.E.I. trying on several different brands and styles of trail runners. As soon as the laces were tied on a pair of Vasque Blur shoes, I was sold. They felt completely broken in right out of the box, in comparison to my boots the weight was next-to-nothing, and I knew the tread would cut through the muddy conditions found almost year round in the Pacific Northwest. They were put to the test on-trail the following weekend, and the refreshed feeling of my feet post-hike was closely mirrored by my refreshed outlook on hiking and backpacking in general. Over the next 3 years I hiked exclusively in my Vasques, and it was only when the tread was almost gone and a few holes on the exterior had developed from wear and tear that I finally put them out to pasture.
S0 out of roughly 3 year of hiking and backpacking, somewhere in the neighborhood of 200+ miles that ranged from the Washington and Oregon coasts to the rugged mountainous terrain of Montana, how could I possibly boil all of the things seen while wearing those Vasques down to just one story? Actually, it wasn’t that difficult at all.
During the Summer of 2008 my future wife and I decided to go on our first backpacking trip together. After consulting a few online sources for potential hikes, we finally decided to follow the advice of the same person that had recommended trail runners to me two Summers earlier. Since he had hiked all over the state of Washington, we felt pretty confident that any recommendation that was labeled as “one of my favorite areas in Washington” would be pretty solid advice. His suggestion?: the Goat Rocks Wilderness, an area that falls almost directly in the middle of a diagonal line that could be drawn between the summits of Mount Rainier and Mount Adams in Southwest Washington. Our route of choice through this huge Wilderness area was a 13 mile loop, with a campsite in the middle that would serve as a base camp for a day-hike to the top of a peak named Old Snowy on the middle day of a 3 day trip.
Being roughly 3 years into our time in Seattle, and having done several hikes in the Mount Rainier area over those 3 years, we both went into the trip with a mental picture of what the Goat Rocks would probably look like: deep evergreen forests followed by alpine meadows of wildflowers with great views of the glaciated peaks of Mount Rainier and Mount Adams. As the slow climb through an evergreen forest gave way to wide open alpine meadows of wild flowers, our mental pictures seemed well on their way to being confirmed. Then we turned another bend in the trail, and our first glimpse of Old Snowy came into view.
With the only exceptions being the flat plateaus outside of Denver, Colorado and Glacier National Park in Montana that almost instantaneously give rise to mammoth mountains–a change that you have to see to believe–I don’t know that I had at that point ever seen as dramatic a shift in landscapes as what we saw with Old Snowy. In what felt like only a few steps, the landscape went from alpine meadow to vegetation-less rock, as if a single contour line on a map was established as the ending point of where all forms of flora ceased–and very few plants dared to venture even an inch further.
Throughout the first two days of our trip we were treated to one amazing vista after another: a waterfall tumbling off of a ridge-top that disappeared underground before resurfacing as a small creek near our campsite; hiking through the moon-like landscape on the way to the summit of Old Snowy; 360 degree views towards Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, and even down to Mount St. Helens with it’s trapezoid-like profile that we were rewarded with from the top of Old Snowy. Every time we thought we had seen the best that this area could offer, we had to rethink that thought as we turned the next corner. It was almost an embarrassment of riches, the likes of which wouldn’t be top by another hike until this past Summer of 2012. Even amidst that embarrassment of riches, what happened the morning of the third day, as we were about to descend from the alpine meadow and rock ridge back into the evergreen forest on our hike out, became the enduring memory of that trip for me.
For the first two days we had enjoyed the best weather that a Pacific Northwest Summer can offer, complete with cloudless skies and a warm, but not uncomfortable temperature. During our second night at camp however, a Summer storm rolled in, giving us front-row seats to an impressive lightning show several ridges away. As we awoke on the third morning, the cloudless skies had turned metallic grey, and the warm air had turned damp with a slight chill.
The first third of our hike out of the Goat Rocks Wilderness on day three had us following a trail that traced its way half-way up the side of an exposed ridge line that towered above the horseshoe-shaped valley it encircled. At the rounded portion of the horseshoe lay Goat Lake–a decent sized lake that is frozen almost all year. Shortly after passing Goat Lake, the trail dropped suddenly from the high ridge line through more meadows of lupine, columbine, and indian paintbrush, back into a deep canopy of evergreens.
Even though the morning had been grey and threatening rain, we had avoided most of it by simply being at a higher altitude than the heavy rain clouds–they clung to the horseshoe shaped valley below us. Turning the corner of the horseshoe after Goat Lake we could tell that our luck was about to change as a strong wind had picked up and was pushing the rain clouds out of the valleys and up and over the ridge we were about to descend. We stopped for a quick snack, and to snap some pictures, hoping for enough of a break in the rain clouds for us to descend off of the ridge and into the trees. Seeing a break in the clouds, we began descending as quickly as we could. Roughly 100 yards into our descent we looked up to see a dark grey mass of cloud barreling towards us, sweeping up the side of the ridge like a wave. I remember freezing mid-stride in the middle of the steep trail, watching and waiting for the quick-moving cloud to sweep over us, unsure of what was about to happen.
The impact of the cloud as it swept over the ground around us ignited all of our senses almost simultaneously: the sight of a cloud mass that seemed to hug the ground as it swept up the side of the mountain, almost feeling as though it passed through us instead of the other way around; the sound of the wind rushing towards us before the cloud, followed by a muffling and deadening of all sounds as the cloud enveloped us; the feel of moisture that wasn’t so much falling on us as much as it was being pushed past us; and finally the almost metallic-like smell and taste of a fresh summer rain that was intensified by the wind forcing it into our rapidly-breathing lungs. One second we were mostly dry, and the next we were completely soaked. One second we could see most of the mountains around us, and the next we could barely see 10 feet in front of us. One second we were in the midst of an incredible backpacking trip with scenery that would stick with us for a long, long time, and the next we were standing in a moment and an experience that imprinted itself so deeply into my senses that I can still see the cloud barreling towards us, smell the deep metallic smell, hear the muffled silence, and feel the impact of moisture crashing into us.
Those are the moments that we venture into the wilderness for–those moments where time stops, our senses truly awaken, and nature makes us realize how very small and powerless we really are. That experience came courtesy of 2 solid pieces of advice from a friend, one of which resulted in me purchasing a pair of Vasque Blurs…one of my favorite pieces of outdoor gear.
On Monday I launched a series of posts whose purpose is to reflect on the places and situations that come to mind when I look at some of my favorite pieces of outdoors-based gear. It is in these moments that a piece of gear’s true value is recognized. Today I offer the first full installment in this series, reflecting on the piece of gear that is partially responsible for my passion for the outdoors: a Sage LE 8’6″ 5 wt. fly rod…..my first fly rod.
The Sage LE line of rods were an all graphite, medium-fast action rod released in 2002 that were marketed towards the beginning or “cost-conscious” angler. To a 19 year old who was in fact both of those, and who had never held a fly rod before, it was simultaneously the greatest fly rod ever produced and a sheer marvel of modern technology–I mean, how could a fishing rod weigh so little short of a NASA or extra-terrestrial intervention!? My fascination with this masterpiece of human ingenuity only increased as I spent a large portion of that Christmas break in my parents’ front yard throwing twenty foot tailing loops and snagging tree branches in my self-taught backcast.
Over the 10 years that has spanned then and now, that LE and I have spent a lot of time together and have seen a lot of things: multiple species of fish, salt and fresh water, my largest and smallest trout to date, and the waters of a couple dozen rivers in a half dozen or more states. Even with the multitude of time and experiences registered with that fly rod, the one memory that immediately jumps out is of a family trip to Yellowstone in 2005 where my love of the sport was forever cemented–and I almost developed frostbite retrieving a stonefly nymph from the back of my head.
See, for a 21 year old whose 3 year fly-fishing experience had been tied almost exclusively to the delayed-harvest trout rivers of North Carolina and Tennessee, stepping into the Yellowstone region was like graduating from YMCA basketball to the NBA. Every single aspect of it felt larger-than-life. From the bison roaming nearby to the sheer expanse of the landscape to the fame associated with the names of the rivers I was wading into, just being there was 95% of the importance for me. And that was a good thing, because by Yellowstone standards the fishing was pretty lousy.
There were two things that didn’t cross our mind when planning our trip to Yellowstone in early June: run-off season and the potential for snow. The reason that these two things never crossed our mind was because neither are June concerns for those living in the Southeast. For us, “run-off season” from snow is only a 3-4 day event, and the chance of snow in June consistently hovers in the negative percentiles. Our packing for the trip reflected this: mostly shorts and Chacos on my part, with a light jacket or two, and a medium-weight coat, socks, beanie, and wool gloves thrown in at the last minute “just in case.” I had chosen to ignore my mom’s research of what weather temperatures to expect, and had left all of the heavy (read: “warm”) items back in the Tar Heel State.
Which brings me to June 1st. We had been in Yellowstone for a day or two already and had found a few rivers to be fishable in their upper stretches within the park. By that point we had made our acquaintance with some smaller browns and rainbows on the Firehole River, but June 1st was the day we would set our sights on the Madison River and all of its notoriously large trout. It would be the day that I would officially cut my teeth on a large, wild, Western trout. We loaded up the rental van that had already carried the 5 of us from Salt Lake City to Jackson Hole to the Tetons, and was now aimed at the Madison River in the heart of Yellowstone. This is where the snow enters into our story.
By the time we reached the stretch of river I had read about in a “best places to go fishing”-type book, a few snowflakes had turned into a downpour. As my brother and I stood looking at the pile of clothing and gear available to us, somewhere in the back of my brain a small voice began saying, “you realize that’s not enough, right?” Choosing to quickly ignore that voice in the name of cutting my teeth on a large, wild, Western trout, we divided up 2 pair of waders, 2 long-sleeve cotton shirts, 2 medium-weight jackets that weren’t waterproof, 1 light-weight waterproof rain jacket, 1 pair of gloves, 1 beanie, and 1 baseball cap. In case you’re scoring at home, that amount of gear would have made one person decently comfortable–and yet two of us were in need of comfort.
After gearing up we quickly began moving towards the water in hopes that our walking would fight off the chill that was already creeping in. Now you might say that our best plan of action, considering our lack of forethought in the bringing of suitable gear, would be to fish until we were cold, and then use the van as a warming hut to regain feeling before heading back out to fish some more–and you would probably be right. Only, we didn’t plan that out very well either. After gearing up and heading out, our parents and my sister-in-law left to visit West Yellowstone, leaving my brother and I alone to fend for ourselves.
Even though it didn’t take us long to recognize the miscalculations in our plan, it did in fact take us a few minutes too long: the van was already out of sight by the time we realized that this wet snow and wind was going to zap our warmth quickly. My brother and I devised a plan that the one of us without gloves (myself to start with) would fish as long as possible without them, he would then retrieve the gloves from the person wearing them just before numbness completely set in, and he would then attempt to quickly re-warm his hands while the other person began the process of losing all feeling. The same would go for the beanie if need-be. Trust me, even today the ridiculousness of that plan is blatantly obvious, but did I mention that the Madison has notoriously large fish that we really hoped to catch?
Upon picking out a spot in the river that looked promising, I was able to put the lack of warmth out of mind just enough to focus entirely on the task at hand. Every drift held the potential of a fish of a lifetime, so every portion of my brain that wasn’t essential to fly-fishing was turned off. That bought me roughly 20 minutes.
Now, there comes a time in being cold that no matter how much distraction you put in front of yourself, there’s going to be something that snaps you back into reality. For me it was an errant cast caught by the wind that sent my large and heavily weighted stonefly nymph crashing into the back of my baseball cap-wearing head. It felt like a brass knuckle-wearing toddler had punched me in my upper neck, and I could tell that the fly was stuck on something–my jacket collar, my hat, my (at that point) almost shoulder-length hair, or maybe even my scalp. Part of me didn’t want to reach to the back of my head for fear of finding a hook embedded in a place a hook has no business being embedded. The other part of me was waking up to the fact that my hands were going to be useless in this process no matter where the fly was.
In my 20 minutes of being “in the zone,” my right hand had frozen to roughly the shape of a fly-rod cork handle while my left hand had frozen with only my thumb and index finger extended in order to strip in fly-line. None of my 10 fingers were going to move without a lot of effort, and neither hand was frozen in a shape conducive to locating and grabbing a fly the size of a Jolly Rancher. A few moments of attempting to awaken the nerve-endings in the general area I believed the fly might be led me to believe that the fly hadn’t found skin, but was instead frozen into my hair with snow accumulating on top of it rapidly. Since my hands stood no chance of removing the fly in their present state, my only hope was that my brother’s fingers were still functioning properly.
I managed to reel up my line and make my way down to where he was fishing, yelling out, ” I need some help” as I got close. He turned, looked at me, and yelled back, “Yep–it sure is cold.” “No,” I yelled. “I need help getting my fly.” At that, his face turned to puzzlement. His response of “where is it?” came at roughly the same moment that he was able to trace my line from the tip of the fly rod to the back of my head, thus answering his question. His laughter was met by my laughter a split-second later, and in that moment we realized how absolutely ridiculous June 1st, 2005 had become.
To keep a long story from becoming ridiculously long, I will say that shortly after he managed to untangle my fly from my tangle of frozen hair, our family returned from their shortened trip to West Yellowstone and we moved towards the warmth of the van as quickly as our extremities would allow. In the middle of our thawing, the snow stopped and the sun began peaking out from behind the clouds. Once we had warmed enough to have proper usage of our fingers and toes, we restrung our two fly rods and gave the Madison one more shot.
While no epic fish were landed, I did manage to land one decent brown, and was able to share the experience of fly fishing in this beautiful place with both my brother and our dad–a combination that has only happened on this one particular trip. Because of this connection to family in a season of change in our lives (I had just graduated college and was about to move 3,000 miles away to Seattle, while my sister-in-law was pregnant with their first son), this family trip to Yellowstone in May and June of 2005 will forever be the memory that comes to mind when I think about, or fish with my 8’6″ 5wt. Sage LE.
My wife and I own a decent amount of outdoors-based gear. We both enjoy backpacking and I have my “affinity” shall we say, to the sport of fly fishing. Over the last 8 years, gear has accumulated because of the natural cycle of buying new items to replace ones that are either worn out or are dated by more modern technologies that make things lighter or stronger. As we replace gear we rarely get rid of the old gear unless it is worn beyond use.
As I’ve thought about why this is, what has struck me is that it isn’t necessarily the financial attachment to outdoors based gear that causes us to hold on to it, but rather the emotional attachment. This led me to think about some of my favorite gear and the stories that those objects conjure up–about the moments that happened and the places I’ve gone as a result of their purchase. It is in these moments, and in these memories, that an object’s true value is measured. While we would all agree that a $60 fly rod will do absolutely nothing better than a $600 dollar one, all of that goes out the window in the hands of a child holding their first fish. In those moments value has nothing to do with cost or brand, but it has everything to do with the ability to forever go back to a specific instance in time where a brand new world was unlocked or a feeling of sheer exhilaration was etched into your brain. We pay for these objects once, but they repay us with memories for as long as we use and own them.
And so I thought it would be entertaining to relive some of my favorite moments in life as conjured up by the objects that played a role in taking me there. This will hopefully become a series that I weave among other posts. Because of my love for fly fishing, and because of it being the activity that has launched my passion for other outdoors pursuits, it seems only right that I start with a fly rod….my first fly rod: a Sage LE 8’6″ 5 weight that was a gift from my parents during the Christmas of my Sophomore year of college. Check back on Thursday of this week to see the full story.