Thursday, September 29, 2016

Currently: September

Currently living/working in: Teaching kids environmental education at Fenton Ranch in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. We've finished up the fifth and fourth graders and have moved onto our last unit with second graders! This season goes lightening-fast! 
I’ve taken the kids wading in our backyard creek about 15 times this season! This is a shallow area, but it gets up over my knees in some parts. 

Current mood: Happy, although sick (see “not excited about”).

Currently excited about: I mentioned that J & I accepted the position of caretakers for Fenton Ranch through the winter. So starting Nov. 1, I am diving into full-time book-writing!!! I am hopeful I will be able to finish the writing process of my book by Christmas! 

Currently not excited about: Kids’ germs. I’ve been told that working around kids means constantly fighting off their fierce germs. I typically have a rock-solid immune system, but it has been seriously compromised! I even had to get on an antibiotic, something I haven’t done in 10 years! 

Currently worried about: Our newfound cat, Mrs. Gibbles. She is the sweetest “barn” cat, and we are trying to domesticate her since we live in such a wild area. We are afraid she will be eaten by a coyote, owl or something bigger since she spends the majority of her time outside. We are working on getting her to a vet, but living in a remote area and working from sun up to sun down makes that a bit challenging. 

Currently thankful for:  Our van is currently taking a rest, but I still can’t believe we put about 10,000 miles on it across 18 states in less than 2 months. Can't wait to do it again next summer and add more states. 
Currently proud of: I love all these side writing projects I obtain writing on different blogs. In one of the latest on Cloudline’s blog, I was able to feature our oldest nephew and our Alaskan adventure with him. 

Currently amazed by: These kids we are teaching. We don’t really have a comparison to teaching in a public school setting, but this group of private school kids blows our mind with their knowledge. 

Current guilty pleasure: Justin purchased an antenna to put on our roof to be able to watch football. Yes, they still make antennas. However, we are so shrouded among the mountains that we can only receive Fox and a static-filled NBC. Better than driving 45 minutes to a small town bar that has one single TV with a cracked screen, I suppose. 

Currently reading: Just finished Thru Hiking Will Break Your Heart: An Adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail by Carrot Quinn. At first, this book was a little slow to get into. Just the mundane details of a PCT hike. But then, it picked up with more emotions and I really admire Carrot’s honest writing style.  

Currently watching on Netflix: We still have the Netflix DVD plan, but we’ve been watching the 11-22-63 mini series. This 8-part DVD is based on Stephen King’s book, 11-22-63, one of our favorite books. They definitely altered the TV show from the book—in some ways we dislike—but it is still good. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Fall Scenes From Fenton Ranch

Sorry for the radio silence around here! Turns out this working thing is really, really time-consuming. I know you just cursed my name since we typically only work 6 months out of the year, but my defense is that our environmental educator role at Fenton Ranch has us going pretty much nonstop from Monday at 9am until Friday at 1pm and kids are freakin exhausting.

Enough of my excuses. We are loving fall at Fenton Ranch. There is still a good bit of wildflower ecstasy around the property, and the temps are crisp with late-afternoon thunderstorms that leave smoke rising from the valley above the Jemez Mountains and fiery evening skies. I am eternally grateful that our wandering souls find jobs in such gorgeous locations.

The other news is we are staying all winter! The school hired us to be winter caretakers and I am ecstatic to see what winter is like at Fenton Ranch. Could it be more beautiful than the spring and fall we've experienced? I will be sure to let you know.

Last spring when we worked as environmental educators at Fenton, we lived in a staff cabin. It was very cozy quarters, but it had no bathroom. Now that we are officially the caretakers, we get our very own cabin with a bathroom and kitchen!

Anyway, just thought I'd check in and give you a short snippet of life lately. We have fifth, fourth and then second graders this session, which runs through October. We have completed the fifth grade program, which we both loved immensely. It was all about the seven principles of Leave No Trace. Very fitting since J and I are Leave No Trace Master Educators and in fact, met our Fenton boss Jamie while taking that weeklong course. Our environment needs more protection and if the fifth graders can put just one principle into practice, than we've done our part as stewards of the planet!

Friday, September 9, 2016

High Point #40: Wheeler Peak, New Mexico

We bagged our 40th state high point this past weekend: New Mexico's Wheeler Peak at 13,161 feet.

We had planned to do this one last spring when we were living and working here, but the trail was snow-covered through May. With that in mind, we didn't want to wait too long this fall, as winter could hit the mountains at any time. So even though we knew it would be crowded, Labor Day weekend seemed like the best fit.

Long holiday weekend aside, Wheeler Peak is always a popular hike that draw in the crowds, especially given the trailhead's location right at the Taos Ski Valley.

New Mexico only has 5 mountains over 13,000 feet, with this being the tallest. There are 2 routes up Wheeler: Bull of the Woods and Williams Lake. It used to be that the Williams Lake route was treacherous without an established trail. But that has changed in recent years and now there is a very well trodden path of switchbacks leading to the peak.
You can see Taos Ski Area in the background.
We chose the Williams Lake route because it makes for a very nice--albeit short--overnight backpacking trip into the Wheeler Peak Wilderness of the Carson National Forest. I wanted to backpack so we could camp at 11,000 feet to give me a little more acclimatization, but also because alpine lakes are just so awesome. Williams Lake sits in a beautiful cirque nestled at the foot of Wheeler.

The Williams Lake trailhead is only 2 miles uphill from the Bull of the Woods trailhead, but we parked at the Bull of the Woods trailhead in the lower lot of the ski valley and walked the extra 2 miles on the road to save The Wanderer from climbing any more steep and hairpin hills. Even from the Bull of the Woods parking area, our total roundtrip mileage for the trip was still only 9 miles!

From Williams Lake on Sunday morning, our summit day was just about 5 miles roundtrip. We left early to avoid the typical afternoon thunderstorms in the mountains. Lightening was not a problem though; the wind was. As we climbed higher and higher, it got blustery. Our estimate was gusts up to 40 mph! I had to put every layer on me.
Also, roaming bighorn sheep and tremendous 360-degree views are supposed to be synonymous with Wheeler. You can see the Rio Grand canyon to the west, Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Range to the north and so on. All we saw was the inside of a ping pong ball! There might have been a bighorn sheep next to me, but I wouldn't have known.
Still, it was a successful summit. Though it was 13,161 feet, my lungs did fine. I'm guessing living at 8,000 feet, acclimating by sleeping at Williams Lake and the fact that the hike itself was relatively easy contributed to my success, but I just think the effects of altitude are erratic. I never know what I am going to get.

That concludes our 2016 summer of highpointing. Four successful summits (King's, White Butte, Elbert and Wheeler) and one attempt (Denali) to mark 40 highpoints before 40 years!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Currently: August

Currently living/working in: We roadtripped most of August, and are now settled back at Fenton Ranch in New Mexico, where we will again teach kids environmental education through October! 

Current mood: Content to be back to work at Fenton. We both really love our roles at Fenton, working with our boss, Jamie, and living in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. 

The property looks so different than it did in the spring! Amazing to witness the seasonal changes.

Currently excited about: The possibility of dedicated book-writing time for me this winter … still TBD, but pretty likely! 

Currently not excited about: Slow and limited Internet at Fenton Ranch. It would be the only thumbs down about being here. 

Currently worried about: We are now on our third trip to a mechanic for our 1995 Chevy Roadtrek ... every mechanic agrees it's a great vehicle, but it is not problem-free.

Currently thankful for: One of the things we miss the most while being nomadic is having a cat. We cat sit a lot and many family members own cats, so we definitely get our fix. But upon returning to Fenton Ranch this fall, we found a feral cat that roams the property and we pretty much adopted it. Well, feral might be too strong of a word. Do feral cats snuggle like this? 

Currently proud of: Guess who was the August JustAnOutdoorGal feature on a very popular blog??? 

Currently regretting: Not getting to watch a single minute of the Olympics! This is the one time we would have actually watched TV, but we were on the road during the Olympics and almost completely out of touch. 

Currently amazed by: The amount of gear we need to test for Backpacker Magazine this summer/fall. We always test various pieces of gear for them, but given the fact we were at Outdoor Retailer and in on the action, we have an extremely eclectic mound of gear to get out into the field!  But we love it!!!!!

Current confession: We spend the majority of our time outside and probably don’t wear enough sunblock. We are trying to be a little more cognizant about applying sunscreen daily and often. Thank you Sawyer for protecting us!

Current guilty pleasure: Grocery bills paid for by our environmental educator job at Fenton Ranch! It's a huge perk of the job. We eat with the kids most days, and even though this includes chicken nuggets, there is always the biggest salad bar ever and we eat the healthiest we do anywhere! 

Currently reading: I finally finished “No Shortcuts to the Top” by Ed Viesturs (with David Roberts). I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately and really liked this book, but it took me 3 months to read, which is really long for me. I’ve moved onto “Thru Hiking Will Break Your Heart: An Adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Carrot Quinn. This book gets rave reviews, so I thought I’d love it. I’m only 12% in (according to Kindle), and so far, I like it, but don’t love it. 

Currently watching on Netflix: We signed up for the old-fashioned DVD plan while we are in a no-streaming zone!

Friday, August 26, 2016

Happy Anniversary National Park Service!

This week on August 25, 2016, the National Parks Service turned 100!! 

Visiting National Parks is something J and I have done ... a lot. We've been to 37 of the 59 parks (yes, we are keeping track) and dozens of the monuments. And as America celebrates this centennial anniversary of the day President Woodrow Wilson's signed the act to create the National Park Service, it is amazing to see how much the organization has grown.

There were less than 360,000 visitors across the 35 parks and monuments in 1916. The 307 million visitors in 2015 across more than 400 parks and monuments broke records and this year, it's expected to do it again.

J & I try to make a habit of visiting parks during their off season, rather than braving the crowds, because, well, jam-packed parks during the centennial celebration is an understatement.

This past road trip, however, we hit Yellowstone, Grand Tetons and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks, as well as Devils Tower National Monument. We were really gluttons for punishment by hitting two of the most popular national parks (Yellowstone and Grand Tetons) during the peak season. The thing is, when we were driving from Outdoor Retailer in Salt Lake City to the Highpointer Convention in Montana, the most direct route--let alone the most scenic route--were through those two parks.

Granted, we didn't go see Old Faithful (wall-to-wall people!!!) and breezed through, but Yellowstone still stands to impress with all its fumaroles, mudpots and geysers.

Yellowstone became the world's first national park in 1872. The National Park Service has its work cut out for it in preserving this one. 

J had been to to Tetons before, but for me, it was a first.  And when we turned the corner from Jackson and caught sight of the jagged mountains reaching for the sky, I was amazed.  This place is a climbing mecca, so I am sure we will back to scale some of these bad boys, well at least J will be.  I may cheer from basecamp!
Further up north, we visited the less popular Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. This park feels like sleeper park. It does not receive many visitors (about 600,000 per year compared with the 4+ million Yellowstone gets). Mostly because it's so far out of the way. The park is spilt into two units separated by about 60 miles. We felt like we had the whole north unit to ourselves as we walked through the dense juniper forest to the open plains overrun by bison and prairie dogs (there are pockets of the park called "prairie dog town" because there are hundreds of them). The south unit is certainly more popular, but both parks had scenic drives that let you see as much as you can with pullouts or hikes into the unknown.

Besides the lack of overcrowding, another reason to hit this park is because it is where Teddy Roosevelt first visited and fell in love with preserving wild spaces. The park highlights his history and accomplishments. He became known as the "conservationist president" with a legacy that includes creation of the US Forest Service and establishing 5 national parks and 18 national monuments. If he were on this year's presidential ticket, I'd certainly vote for him.

Last, but not least, we stopped at Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming. This was a quick visit to see the phenomenon of the 867-foot tower sticking up from the ground. Roosevelt designated this prominent butte as the country's first national monument
All the parks were mobbed given the timing of the centennial. The thing is, I'm pretty torn about seeing the masses enjoying the outdoors. Far too many Americans opt for indoor activities versus outdoor recreation. So getting people out and about to enjoy Earth's bounty is an awesome thing.

The problem is that people are often irresponsible users of the outdoors. I have been a culprit of it myself from time to time, so I am not pointing fingers. But it definitely pains me us to see people disrespecting nature and we saw a lot of that on this trip, unfortunately.
This bison says, "don't stand so, don't stand so, close to me." Always keep 25 yards from bison and most wildlife (100 yards from bear!). 

This is why J & I became Leave No Trace Master Educators in 2014 and now take jobs like the one at Fenton Ranch in New Mexico where we instill lessons about respecting nature to young schoolchildren. We have both learned so much through Leave No Trace about being good stewards, things we didn't know during our early days of backpacking (I wish I could go back in time and have a talk with myself ...) All it takes is a little education and an open mind from the user!

Okay, I'll get off my soap box now. But, I'll leave you with a quote I saw recently that really rang true for our passion. Happy birthday NPS! 

"This is what we can promise the future: a legacy of care. That we will be good stewards and not take too much or give back too little, that we will recognize wild nature for what it is, in all its magnificent and complex history - an unfathomable wealth that should be consciously saved, not ruthlessly spent. Privilege is what we inherit by our status as Homo sapiens living on this planet. This is the privilege of imagination. What we choose to do with our privilege as a species is up to each of us." 

- Terry Tempest Williams

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

High Point #39 For My 38th Birthday

I celebrated my 38th birthday this weekend. Typically I am not a "birthday" celebration kind of gal. To me, it's just another day. But J and his sisters love celebrating birthdays and making a big deal, so since we have so much family in Denver, it was par for the course.

J asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday and I really wanted to climb a mountain. More specifically, Colorado's highest peak, Mount Elbert at 14,433 feet.

We spend a lot of time in Colorado, but have yet to attempt Elbert. In an effort to climb all the state high points, we'd have to try it sooner than later, but it scared me a bit. I've referenced my serious lack of lung capacity as we climb higher and higher in elevation, presumably thanks to my pulmonary embolism in 2013. At 14,433 feet, Mount Elbert actually ranks as the 3rd tallest high point in the United States (behind Denali, which I will never attempt, and Mt. Whitney, which I've conquered).
The trail up to Mount Elbert is well-trodden and popular. In fact, we probably saw at least 300 people on our Saturday hike up it!! But grade aside, it is the elevation change that makes it a battle. It's a little more than 5 miles to the top, but with 4,500 feet of elevation gain!

Additionally, Colorado is known for its afternoon storms, so when climbing its mountains, you need to pay very close attention to the weather. For Elbert, you are above treeline starting right around 11,900 feet, meaning you remain highly exposed for a few hours.
I had this whole plan for Elbert. We would camp at the trailhead at 10,100 feet, helping a little bit with acclimatization. We would also start uber early (like 5am) to give us enough time to get up and down before the afternoon storms.

Did any of that happen? Of course not. Instead, we drove 3 hrs from Denver to the trailhead, arriving around 5:45am. At this point, we both really just thought we wouldn't make it to the top, given our late start and my snail hiking pace. Plus, this time around, I had a new symptom of altitude ... I was extremely nauseous. So much that I needed to stop and take a break and drink some Powerade every 300 feet or so.  J just kept saying we could turn around anytime I wanted.

But, with every painful step, I gained determination and perseverance. We played leapfrog with so many other couples and it was typically the females who were walking like zombies. My lady friends and I would exchange a lot of encouraging glances (not speaking a word thanks to the lack of oxygen).
The weather was phenomenal--hardly a cloud in the sky--which gave me all the time I needed to get to the top. And about 5.5 hours after I started, I was on the summit.

I don't know why, but this accomplishment really made me proud. I guess I just wanted my 38-year-old lungs to know that I could still do it!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

High Point #38: White Butte, North Dakota

We hit another high point, this one 10,000 feet lower than our last on King's Peak: White Butte, North Dakota at 3,506 feet.
North Dakota marks our 38th high point. We've been pretty impressed with ourselves for having such a "high" number. However, this past weekend, we attended the annual "Highpointer Convention" (yes, it is a thing!!) and found that 38 was on the low end!

The convention took place this year in Red Lodge, Montana. Though we've been active highpointers for 10 years or so, we've never been to a convention. Since we were in Salt Lake City last week for Outdoor Retailer, we rationalized that we were halfway to Montana, so why not hop over there for the gathering?

In any case, there were 286 fellow highpointers at the convention! And, the majority of them had reached all of the lower 48 state high points!! A handful did ALL 50 state high points!!! We even met one person who had done several rounds of the 50 peaks!!!!
Exclamation points aside, it was awesome to have met so many interesting people and to be able to exchange stories with fellow outdoor enthusiasts. There were several different activities during the weekend, including a watermelon feast and knot tying practice classes (I participated; J sat and critiqued my not-so-great knot-tying skills). We even met the authors of the guidebook we've been following since 2006 (Highpoint Adventures by Charlie and Diane Winger), as well as a fellow van-dwelling couple our age.
Dirty Dancing fans: "I carried a watermelon!"
Zak & Hannah live in a van smaller than ours!!

After leaving Red Lodge, Montana, we swung over to North Dakota. Its high point is in the southwest corner of the state, not really on the way to anywhere, but we were in Montana, and North Dakota was relatively close ...

White Butte is on private property, so down a few gravel roads and with nothing around but farmland. The 3.4-mile roundtrip hike was easy enough with no drama, aside from the occasional rattlesnakes. Buttes are common in this part of North Dakota, rising from the grasslands with colorful layers of sediment. This was a pretty butte (LOL!), plus we timed it perfectly to catch a famed North Dakota sunset with howling coyotes in the distance.

With North Dakota marking our 38th high point, we can almost see the goal of reaching all 50 state high points close to completion. Except that I'm pretty certain I will only make it to 45 high points. Here's what we have left:

Illinois - Charles Mound (1,235 ft)
Wisconsin - Timm's Hill (1,951 ft)
Minnesota - Eagle Mtn (2,301 ft)
Michigan - Mt. Arvon (1,979 ft)
The plan is to knock out these 4 in one big swoop of a road trip.  The difficultly is because Charles Mound is on private property and only open 4-5 weekends/year!!
Colorado - Mt. Elbert (14,433 ft)
New Mexico - Wheeler Peak (13,161 ft)
Nevada - Boundary Peak (13,143 ft)
Oregon - Mt. Hood (11,239 ft)
Wyoming - Gannett Peak (13,804 ft)
Montana - Granite Peak (12,799 ft)
Alaska - Denali (20,310 ft)
All I can say is I will try ... however, some of these (Oregon, Wyoming, Montana and definitely Alaska) require some serious technical climbing and glacial travel. So try will probably mean I will be J's cheerleader from the trailhead
And hopefully saving the best for last ... Hawaii - Mauna Kea (13,720 ft)

Friday, August 12, 2016

High Point #37: King's Peak, Utah

J & I hit our 37th high point, King's Peak in Utah, at 13,528 feet!!
I'm ecstatic for 2 reasons. Number one, this is the highest I've been since my pulmonary embolism in 2013. I have always struggled at altitude, but ever since my PE, my lungs struggle just a little bit more, sadly.

We made sure to acclimatize as best we could. We slept at the trailhead at ~9,400 feet, then camped at Dollar Lake at ~10,800 feet, then summited the next day, leaving base camp set up at Dollar Lake. And I just took it slow, very slow. J served as my sherpa, so I only had to carry my tiniest day pack of water and snacks. It was hard. But, I did it. I am certainly jealous of my husband's seemingly bionic lungs, as I huff and puff with a racing heart to send adequate blood flow to my oxygen-starved tissues. I also had a bout of nausea to go along with the heavy panting, but I think the worst part is how it feels like my heart is going to leap out of my chest just from taking a single step!
J looks like he is ready for a double marathon, while I look like I am close to death and can't even force a smile.   

The other part about King's Peak, though, was that it was an awesome and beautiful 26-mile backpacking trip! We've done a lot of hiking and camping in southern Utah, but northern Utah offers a whole new landscape. King's Peak is located in the High Unitas Wilderness of the Wasatch National Forest.

We approached from Henry's Fork Campground Trailhead (The Wanderer also got his workout on the 25 miles of gravel roads). The first 8 miles gradually climbs through forested trail and opens up to a grand meadow surrounded by a wall of sedimentary peaks.

The alpine bowl makes for a good moose spotting area (full rack no less)! 

There are a ton of established campsites between Dollar Lake and Henry's Fork Lake, so no need to worry about space, as this area is quite crowded with peak baggers and general outdoor enthusiasts.

From Dollar Lake, the trail climbs a little more steeply to Gunsight Pass at 11,888 feet. From here, you have 2 options. Drop 600 feet into the mosquito-infested Painter's Basin (which truly looks like a colorful painting under a blue sky), or take a sketchy shortcut over to Anderson Pass. I heard mixed reviews about the shortcut being hard to follow and steep, but there were cairns and a pretty distinguished path. In my opinion, take the shortcut.

We then met up with the other trail from Painter's Basin and this is where the trail virtually disappears. There are occasionally cairns, but you mainly pick your way up in a breathless scramble over boulders for the last 2 miles up to the peak. I am irrationally fearful of rockslides, but this was, thankfully, cake walk for me compared with Idaho's Borah Peak (#31) or Mt. Rintoul in New Zealand's Richmond Range.

Overall, we caught a great weather window (aside from one quick-moving thunderstorm that rolled through as we were picking out a camp spot around Dollar Lake ... no time to be picky!! Take cover!!). My lungs are glad to have that one behind me.