laughingtotem: Blog en-us (C) laughingtotem (laughingtotem) Mon, 16 Mar 2020 06:38:00 GMT Mon, 16 Mar 2020 06:38:00 GMT laughingtotem: Blog 105 120 Locality

“Do you feel like you missed out on anything in your childhood?”  

It was an unexpected question from my mom, but in retrospect it shouldn’t have been.  I looked at my phone for a second, then responded,  “Um,  I don’t think so.”  Truthfully, I felt like I had a pretty awesome childhood. As the son of a military doctor, I got to see lots of the country, I grew up around battleships and fighter jets, and the Blue Angels used to fly over my house.  My school years were in that time between Vietnam and the first Iraq War, a time when being associated with the military but not having to deal with the actual realities of a war made it seem like the coolest thing in the world! 

Best of all I got to reinvent myself with every move.  How many kids got a mulligan on their school reputation?  If I transgressed a playground rule, if I opened my mouth and the wrong thing came out, I’d think, “Well, I’ll only have to deal with this for a while.  I’ll remember this for the next time.”  I was able to embellish and fudge my former playground standing without repercussion because the people who knew the truth were 3000 miles away on an opposite coast!  Somehow, I always managed to revert to being myself and not the superhuman ninja/jock/poet/artist I painted myself.  But it wasn’t that I didn’t have the opportunity.  I never felt unaccepted or that I was missing a home. Yup, my childhood was pretty awesome.

The more I thought about it though, there WAS one thing I feel like I missed out on.

I never had the opportunity to be a “local.”

As an outsider looking in, my idea of a local is a bit different.  I saw people who would do ANYTHING to get out of their town, but in order to hate a place that much, you had to KNOW it.  You had to share a history.  You know what used to be on Third and Pine before it burned down in ’83.  You knew which school won state in ’67 because your dad played then.   The commissioner that got run out of town after embezzling county funds? You dated his son or daughter.  That knowledge of a place, that affinity and association are what I missed out on.  Places were just that, places.  I liked some more than others, but that was a superficial transient feeling, much like my association with any given area.

In 2000, I moved to Northeast Georgia with my wife-to-be when she got a teaching position at a small liberal arts college. And it’s here that I was introduced to the Chattooga River which starts in the mountains around Highlands, NC and descends to form the border between South Carolina and Georgia before slowing to a backwater behind the Tugalo Dam.  To call the Chattooga ”storied” is to minimize its lore.  James Dickey’s Deliverance was inspired by it, and the movie that the book was based on inspired a million “banjo playing redneck” jokes that the locals still embrace for tourism purposes, but softly curse under their breath.  History, affinity, association - all the things that defined “local” in my mind were distilled (sorry, necessary still reference) in that river.  




It’s said that in order to know the truth you have to go to the source, so I did and I haven’t stopped.  The headwaters of the Chattooga, known as Section 00 to paddlers, starts just south of Cashiers and ends at Bullpen Road, or as the locals know it, “The Ol’ Arn bridge.”  Looking down from the bridge, the river puts on her best showy face as the water dances and spreads through a series of potholes carved over time and in the autumn they catch colorful leaves, creating swirls of red and gold.  



This past weekend I went back as I have a few times a year since I first set foot on the deck of the bridge.  I knew that it was time for the spring wildflowers to be in full swing.  Trillium, dwarf Iris, and bluettes all would be showing.


On arrival, I looked out and noted the continued dying of the Eastern hemlocks that once stood green and stoic along the banks, the hemlock wooly adelgid turning them into old gray ghosts.  It was then that I realized, I was local.


If you asked anyone in Cashiers, Highlands, or Walhalla if I were a local they would laugh their asses off.  The idea of local in southern Appalachian communities span not years, not lifetimes, but generations.  It’s a point of pride and I don’t begrudge them their standards, but as far as the river was concerned, in her long lifetime I was as local as any human being.  I’d made the effort to know her.  I’d seen her when she was almost dry and I slept next to her with the ground shaking from the rumbling movements of boulders being shoved around in her bed during floods.  I knew when the Trillium and indian cucumber root came up in the spring.  I remember climbing up on the rock that guards the view of the lower narrows for the first time and feeling that I’d accessed a place that was still relatively untouched. I’ve watched that view change as trees fall, rocks move, and river levels fluctuate.

Associations were there as well, like walking there with my wife as we looked up and the autumn maples rained down leaves on us in looping spirals. I paralleled the Upper Chattooga with my whitewater paddling experience.  When I first started boating, the Upper Chattooga was off limits to boaters, but in 2013 it was opened to those with the skill and inclination to run it.   It became my favorite place to take people when they asked to be shown a southern wild area, so the memory of many an experience with good friends has its touchstone there.  

I have no delusions regarding my proprietorship of this wonderful area.  In my mind, the worst aspects of localism regard entitlement and exclusion.  At the same time, I feel a need to protect it, simply because I give a damn about it.  I care if it gets “loved to death.”  I have opinions as to how best to protect it.  And I have trepidations about writing this because I know that it’s not just me for whom it’s special.  So if you come, tread lightly, respect those who have come to listen to the river and not your voice, and work on being a local, even if it’s just for a day. 

Yeah, I know I’m not a local by most standards, but when I’m there I assume the river considers me a local, and she hasn’t denied me yet.

Chattooga Conservation Hiking LaughingTotem Local Photography Wed, 30 Apr 2014 10:29:40 GMT
March 2014 Iceland Trip Part 1. "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" Reykjavik

Arrival in Reykjavik

“I can’t believe we’re in Frankfurt.” 


This wasn’t stated in the, “Oh my God, after all this time we’re finally in Frankfurt!” sort of way.  It was more of a “How the hell did we end up in Frankfurt?” confused disbelief.  “How long until our flight to Reykjavik?” I asked.   “We’ve got about an hour and a half until  boarding,” my traveling partner in crime answered. This wasn’t right. But it was real.   Ten, maybe twelve hours prior, all had seemed right with the world.  After months of anticipation and planning, I was being dropped off at Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, NC.  “Have a good safe trip hon!” my wife said as she dropped me off at departures.  “I’ll try,” I responded in typical cautious optimism mode.  Iceland.  I was going to Iceland, a place that had been on the bucket list for a quarter century.  My traveling partner in crime, Gary, had agreed to go with me to Iceland in March.  Not exactly high tourist season a few degrees south of the arctic circle.


We, along with Gary’s wife Katie, had notched backpacking trips to the Eagle Cap Wilderness of eastern Oregon and a trip to Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, Canada which consisted of a trailless trek that started with a climb out of a fjord and proceeded across the highlands of western Newfoundland with only the moose and caribou to accompany us.  Our relationship was trail-tested. Lost maps,  storms, gale force winds, rank body odor, and even more rank jokes were the fire in which our friendship had been forged.  Then we met US AIr.


Upon getting dropped off at the airport, I immediately checked the departure boards. “Aww.. you gotta be kidding.”  Our 5:50 PM departure had been delayed until 6:45. We had originally had a one hour forty five minute layover in Boston before jumping an Iceland Air flight into Reykjavik.  So it would be cutting it REALLY close. “OK, I thought, we can do this…”  As the board refreshed the blood drained from my face.


US Airways flight 1806 - Estimated departure time: 7:30 PM.


Oh…. bugger.  


Two hour flight. 9:35 departure from Boston.  FIve minutes to make a connecting international flight. 


“We. are. screwed.”  I muttered.


I tried to call Gary on the cell, but got nothing.  He had the tickets and confirmation data so I slumped onto one of the remarkably comfortable looking, yet remarkably uncomfortable chairs that seem to dot airports countrywide.  FIve minutes later Gary came in, right on time.  I apparently have the worst poker face in history because one look at my hangdog mug sent Gary into crisis aversion mode.  His recent international travel experience far outstripped my own, so he took lead.


We went up to the counter and were basically told to scan our passports and receive our boarding passes before anything else. Gary started enquiring about possible alternative flights but was rapidly shut down by the lady behind the desk. “Honey, I don’t wan’t to tell you anything because I can’t know for sure.  The info I get is kind of unreliable.  Your plane looks like it’s leaving at 7:00.”  We countered with the opinion of the computer screen over her left shoulder which had a different view of the ability of the airline to get their crap together.  “That says 7:30,” I said.  “Yeah,” she said, “but that’s not what MY screen says.”  Recognizing the futility of asking for a rational reason why there would be two different times estimated for the same flight within the airport itself, we moved on.  “Who can give us a better idea?”  “Well, check you bags and go to the gate.  They’ll give you a better idea.”  It looked like our bags were going on a trip whether we were or not.


We cleared security and went to the gate, where we found… no one.  Of course there wasn’t anyone there.  Why would there be?  The plane wasn’t going to leave until “7 something” and here it was “4 something.”  Efficiency would demand that airline employees not wait at a gate for three hours regardless of how many customers would go there expecting their plane to be on time.  We went on a search for the US Air customer service desk.  It wasn’t that hard to spot: it was the desk with the line of about 80 disgruntled people in a loose queue in front of it.  We dutifully got in line while we reached for our phones to call our wives to vent and let them know we might need a ride home, and then to call US Air customer service.  Gary connected and sat though the entire US Air sales spiel while waiting on hold.  Gary mused aloud,  “You know, waiting on hold for customer service might not be the best time to try and sell me on the virtues of your wonderful airlines.  Chances are I’m dealing with the stark realities of your product versus the pretty pictures you’re selling.”  Finally he got the “Very Nice Lady” from customer service on the other end.  She was kind, polite. and assured Gary that she would do her best to find a solution.  She did.


“Well there are no other flights to Iceland from the States today.  It’s the off season.”  This wasn’t an option because we couldn’t afford to lose a full day in Iceland.  We had our motel booked and paid for, and we were scheduled for a northern lights hunt the night of our arrival.  “I DO have an option of getting you into Reykjavik the same day, but it’s through Frankfurt, Germany.”  We let that sink in.  Fly 4300 miles in 9.5 hours to Frankfurt, wait 3 hours, and then board a plane to fly 1500 miles and 3.5 hours BACK THE WAY WE CAME.  Gary looked at me with raised eyebrows.  I gave a helpless shrug and agreed.  We were assured that our bags would be pulled off the Boston flight and put on the Frankfurt flight.


We arrived at our gate after sorting out the flight swap and boarded the plane.  “Where are we going again?”  “Frankfurt.”  “Right.  Frankfurt.” “It’s a nice airport!” said a man who had overheard our collective grumbling. “Well, that’s nice to hear,” I replied.  The flight to Frankfurt was long but uneventful.  The lady sitting next to me was returning to Germany to visit her family after living in Atlanta for 15 years.  When we explained why we were going to Germany, she replied in a vague german accent, “Really?  Wow.  It sounds like you’re being punished!”  There’s nothing like having your persecution complex confirmed by random strangers.


The man who said Frankfurt was a nice airport?  Yeah, he lied.  Well, that’s not totally fair.  It was clean, quiet, and aside from one packed restaurant and a small cart serving pastries, completely sterile once you cleared security.  The cliche of German practicality, efficiency and humorlessness was pretty much confirmed.  However the chairs, while equally as comfortable looking as those in the States, proved to be surprisingly… comfortable.
Frankfurt Airport Comfy German Chairs. Because no one expects the German Inquisition. Frankfurt Airport Comfy German Chairs. Because no one expects the German Inquisition.
 Comfy German Chairs.  Because no one expects the German Inquisition.


The flight to Reykjavik on Iceland Air was smooth and was our first introduction to the Icelandic language.  Across the seatback pillows and any other airline-branded paraphernalia are phrases translated from the English to Icelandic.  “Those are some LOOOOOONG words,” I said, “and I don’t even know what that letter is.”  Thankfully, every Icelander we met spoke near perfect English.  Once again, Americans luck out.  It just so happens the language we speak is as close to a lingua franca as exists in the Western world.


“Well, I think our bags are probably watching a Celtics game and listening to the Drop Kick Murphys.”  We watched the floral embroidered bag go around the carousel for the third time.  It turned out that it wasn’t just the stranger who had given us his opinion of the Frankfurt airport who had lied, the “Very Nice Lady” from customer service had also been less than truthful.  Our bags had made what was I’m sure was an extremely interesting and exciting journey, however they had failed to arrive at our agreed upon meeting point.  We signed the forms that would allow the airline to inform us when our prodigal bags decided to repent and come home and hopped the shuttle for our hotel.  KeflavikLooking out the window at Keflavik, heading toward Reykjavik KeflavikLooking out the window at Keflavik, heading toward Reykjavik

Looking out the window at Keflavik, heading toward Reykjavik

We arrived at the hotel with our carry on bags and about fifteen minutes to spare before every shop in Reykjavik closed, leaving me without gloves and a hat and Gary without warm pants and long johns.  All of which were in our globetrotting luggage.  A rushed shopping trip into Reykjavik’s shopping district netted us some remarkably expensive long johns and accessories.  An excellent, though extremely rushed, meal in the hotel restaurant was immediately followed by our Aurora chaser companion for the night.  He took one look at my camera gear and asked where my tripod was.  I answered sheepishly, "Um... Boston.”  He said, “Well it’s lucky for you I have a spare!”  The only thing that kept me from planting a big wet one on his cheek was the thought of the possible repercussions to US /Icelandic relations.  We piled into the van and headed out. The Icelandic landscape was a bit primeval, with steam pouring out of the ground and the hint of sulphur.  We arrived at out spot for the night and piled out. We were met by another van, and a large group gathered looking at…nothing.  After about fifteen minutes our guide pointed over a mountain on the horizon, “There!  Do you see it?”  I mounted my camera on the tripod that the guide had loaned me.  It made a brave effort, but it had been designed to hold small light point and shoot cameras vs the dSLR and 24-105 lens I had brought.  It slumped under the weight.  Every fifth shot would be a streak of light and color as the legs fell or the head tilted.

The little tripod that could... some of the time.

  Still I got more shots than I would have had the generous guide not had the tripod with him!  One of the groups decided they had had enough of the temps in the teens and left the rest of us crazies to stick it out a few more minutes. 

Aurora part 1

Finally we piled in and started back toward Reykjavik.   It was so cold that there was frost an eighth of an inch thick forming on the inside of the glass.  A gentleman in front of me scraped away the ice on the window and immediately started yelling, “Look! Look!”  The sky was exploding, with green plasma writhing in serpentine patterns across the sky.  We rapidly warmed numb hands and then ran outside as the driver pulled to a stop.  As the neon colored light tinted the snow in yellow greens, all I could think of was, 



“Worth it.”

Fiasco Iceland LaughingTotem Photography Travel adventure redemption Sun, 06 Apr 2014 03:53:45 GMT
Autumn High Pressure. Part 1



Well at the moment Hurricane Sandy… Sandy?  Really?  When I hear the name Sandy, I think of Olivia Newton-John in Grease, and not the demure Sandy of most of the movie, but rather the leather clad smoking Sandy that shows up at the end.  Not sure what that means, but I'm sure it's significant.  I mean significant beyond me showing my age and slightly geeky upbringing. Anyway, Sandy is bearing down on the East Coast and the National Weather Service pointed out that the pressure was extremely low for a category 1 storm.  


Now having a brain that is constantly in free association mode, I immediately glommed on to the word pressure and it's implications.  For me, October in the Southeast is an example of HIGH pressure,  The Southern Appalachians in Autumn correspond to the World Series perfectly, where you had better bring your A game.  It's the culmination of the long seasons of spring through summer and leads into the winter lull when everything goes gray and dead and landscape photography become much more difficult. The endless green tunnels and vistas that were so welcome after the winter have become old hat, and the idea of shooting midday and actually getting something visually interesting has a special appeal. It's when every landscape photographer hopes to get that iconic shot of autumn color, and I do mean EVERY photographer.


My first attempt this month was a trip up to the Blue Ridge Parkway between Boone and Blowing Rock on October 8 and 9.  It was early, both in the day and in the leaf season as well, when I made the exit off of 321 N onto the Parkway.  The first predawn light was starting to show, and within three or four minutes it silhouetted a photographer standing by a tripod in a field.  "Uh Oh."  Over the next five miles between 321 and the Linn Cove viaduct I saw enough tripods to equip a remake of "The War of the Worlds."   The photo season had begun.  In addition to the photographers, there were hikers, cyclists, and leaf peepers all prepping for their day in the morning glow.  By the time I made it to the Linn Cove Viaduct there were already 10 cars there.  I felt like there should have been a Sergio Leone western whistle soundtrack when I got out of my car.  Another gunslinger come to town…     


As I  queued up next to a photographer with an industrial strength Gitzo Tripod and a Really Right Stuff BH55 bullhead holding a brand new Pentax 645D and a…


OK you can wake up now. 


Suffice it to say with my respectable but  less than new and shiny camera gear,  I felt like I had brought a knife to a thermonuclear war…  I know, I know. "It's not the camera it's the photographer" (actually it's both), but there will always be a certain intimidation factor when someone shows up with a rig that costs twice as much as my car.  The gentleman was nice enough and we rapidly started discussing the light, the foliage and the cloud cover that stretched out in front of us.  I started looking carefully and mentioned how I wished that the color were a bit higher and that it looked like it might be a rather subdued fall.  "Yeah, that's true.  But it still beats being behind a desk early on a Tuesday morning."   Point well taken.  We stood for a few minutes above the clouds, the soft scraping as tripods were shifted onto position, the beeps and clicks of Autofocus motors kicking in and of shutters being released. The sun came up over the clouds and illuminated the small islands of trees that poked through the gently moving surface.  It wasn't to be the showy flash of color and light that I had hoped for; it was something entirely different - a subtle show of sweeping lines and pastels.  


Slowly the clouds crept up the ridge like they had in Grayson Highlands.  Soon, we were engulfed in fog.  I decided to move up the ridge to see if I could get above the clouds again, but to no avail.   As I waited for the fog to clear, I watched as the mist condensed on the leaves adding a surreal jeweled scape perfect for a few close ups.   After the sky failed to clear, I went back down and scouted out a spot that I though might be good the following weekend.  Boone Fork.  To be continued.

Autumn Blue Ridge Parkway Linn Cove Photography foliage laughingtotem Mon, 29 Oct 2012 23:52:23 GMT
Of Mountains, Moleskins, Ego, and the Eagle Cap. Part 3  

It's odd waking up four days into a hike, finding yourself within three miles of the trailhead where you started out and realizing you're still more than twenty miles from the exit point. This is why many people either hike into the Lakes Basin OR hike into Ice Lake.  It's basically a fifteen mile side trip.  Now was the time to make the right back onto the West Fork of the Wallowa trail and ascend into the Lakes Basin.

Katie Crossing the West Fork Wallowa Gary Crossing the West Fork Wallowa

  As we gradually hiked further up the trail, the deep river valley slowly widened into open meadows with views of Eagle Cap and surrounding mountains.   Again and again I was struck by the incredible clarity of the many creeks we crossed. Three and a half miles further on we crossed the Wallowa River for the last time and climbed up out of the valley into the high country.  Once again Gary was like an excitable, but loyal, black lab.  He stayed with us, but I could have sworn I could hear excited whimpering as vista after vista spread out before him.  One of the views climbing into the lakes Basin from The WF Wallowa

After assuring him that Katie and I would be fine, the metaphorical leash came off the collar… and the next time I saw him was at the campsite.  In my mind's eye I can still see him running up the trail, tail wagging, tongue lolling, chipmunks and golden mantled ground squirrels fleeing in surprise as he comes bounding around a switchback.  Lets just say his enthusiasm is contagious.  Katie managed to stop herself from sticking her hiking stick in my ear when I said it was alright if she wanted to go ahead as well.  I know now that Katie does exactly what she intends, if she was going to pass she would have.   1200 feet of vertical later Katie and I hiked to the edge of Horseshoe Lake.  Gary had gotten there about 15 minutes before us and had scouted sites.  Today's mileage had been under 7 miles and it was just shortly before noon, just in time to see the moon disappear behind the unnamed mountain at the head of the lake.

Moon setting over mountains at head of Horseshoe Lake

Unlike Ice Lake, Horseshoe was much more open, with a few small islands spread around it.  Views of Horseshoe Lake

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring, lazing around the lake and yes, even going in for a short swim.  A very, very, short swim.  Gary was the first in, followed by Katie and finally myself.  It took several minutes of heartless browbeating, taunts, and eventual bribery to get Katie to put her head under water.  "Screw you guys!" was her battle cry as she dove under.  The sun warmed instantly, but frequent turning was required to keep the shadow side of the body from icing over.  Ok, that might be an exaggeration, but the difference in temperature between shadow and sun ensured that frequent moving from one side to the other was required to stay comfortable. Gary and Katie relaxing around Horseshoe Lake

  I spent the last part of the afternoon carving a spoon out of a piece of pine, as the marvelously engineered, ridiculously light, and miraculously compact collapsable one that came with my cook kit had proved to be somewhat lacking in the "structural integrity"  department.  Plastic tabs on ANYTHING are a bad idea in the field. My hastily carved spoon worked well in my beef stroganoff, even if the pine sap from the wood added an unexpected zing to the flavor.  Too bad I proceeded to leave it at the site the following morning.  A chipmunk decided that something smelled good enough to check out.  When he failed to get food directly from us he struck out on his own, exploring where he though the food might have come from, my pack.

Coming to dinner

Horseshoe, Lee, Douglas, Moccasin, Sunshine, Mirror: Day five of our trip started with us trying to remember the order of the lakes we would pass on the short hike that would take us to the base of Eagle Cap Mountain.  This is where my choice to take the rest day the second day came back to bite us.  Each lake was separated by a short steep climb over a small pass that would reveal a tantalizing view of possibilities surrounding each lake.  Days could be spent exploring shorelines, climbing surrounding peaks, but we had to move on.  After Douglas Lake, Eagle Cap started to come into view again and the sight quickened our steps.


About a mile from Mirror Lake my cerebrum received a telegram.   Here is the text.


To: Higher Functioning Neural Pathways and Cognitive Structures.

Re: State of lower extremities and useful functioning thereof.


Message:  Hey, Nimrods.  We've been signaling that something is seriously amiss down here for the past four days.  Are you even listening!?  There seem to be extended periods where nothing goes wrong and then there are several hours of belt sander-like abrasion on both calcaneal structures.  The bones  are starting to get worried.   You see, they're aware of light coming from areas that should be opaque, and the right one in particular swears it actually felt "a breeze" at 11:42 GMT.  He might well be exaggerating, however we've decided that our messages aren't coming through loud enough, so we're opening up the pathways a couple more notches.  We hope that this will expedite your stopping whatever the hell it is that you, in your "rational" wisdom, are doing.  In short, we're THIS far from going on strike and letting you try to maneuver around on numb feet while getting no response from us.  See how you like being ignored.


Signed:  Your Damned Feet.


A quick check of my feet showed that yes, I had finally worn through both heels and bloody socks were now present.  Yippee.  I continued on as fast as I could until we reached Mirror Lake.  Or at least what I had claimed was Mirror Lake.  You see, I had been counting lakes as I passed them and you'd think that, I a college graduate, could count to six without messing up, right?  Apparently not.  "Uhh.  I think this is Sunshine, not Mirror," says Gary as he looks at the map.  "What? That can't be right."  It was.  I'd stopped us a half mile short.  Now on top of being the slowest and most injury prone, my navigation skills had been called out.  Luckily I'm secure in my abilities, or I had been.  One more pass and we were at Mirror Lake.  It was beautiful, but it was also by far the most popular place we had been.  After a bit of searching we found an unoccupied site just beyond the 100 foot limit that protected the shore line. View from our Campsite.

  It was open and beautiful and it acted like a wind tunnel for the late afternoon wind that came blowing up from Sunshine lake and beyond. Everything we owned would be covered in fine dust by four in the afternoon.  The winds eventually died down and we sat a short distance away from the site looking back across the range to the peak of the Matterhorn that we had stood upon two mornings prior.  View of Sunshine Lake from Saddle to Mirror Lake

Telephoto view of Matterhorn from Mirror Lake.  Yeah it's a bit more impressive from this side.

Why it's called Mirror Lake

Gary and I spent one more evening staying up in order to watch the amazing celestial light show over Eagle Cap.  He pointed out that both the constellation "Aquila, the Eagle," and the Eagle Nebula were visible just above Eagle Cap, making for a perfect Eagle Trifecta.  A perfect way to spend our last night in the Wilderness.

Aquila, Eagle Nebula and Eagle Cap.  

The last morning had us hiking downhill about 8 miles down the East Fork of the Lostine River, an area I had attempted to ascend in June 2011, but I was turned back by heavy snow pack and rising water. This time the trek was worry free, and we descended the open valley along the meandering creek, with pikas, Clark's nutcrackers and other critters biding us farewell.  We rested at the bridge crossing the creek

EF Lostine.

and took one last look into the basin, trying not to contemplate the logistics of the trip home.  The last couple of miles descended steeply and as we passed hikers coming up, I recognized the expressions on their faces echoing my own.  Discomfort, discouragement, determination, joy, contentment.  One guy said that he was tired of his face hurting from all the smiling.  That pretty much summed it up.  The car came into view at the Two Pan Trailhead.  Groups were excitedly gearing up and throwing on packs.  Part of me wanted to turn around and just follow, to experience the trail again.  My feet said "bugger off."


One more night in Enterprise and then a drive back through the Palouse which honestly deserves a trip of it's own,


Palouse views.

and we were in Spokane airport waiting for the six hour flight time back home.


For some reason, I brought an excess of ego on this trip, or maybe that ego was just spotlighted when I didn't hike as well as I though I would.  I was hyper aware of my own failings and the perception of those failings by my hiking partners.  To my non-hiking/climbing friends I'm something of a bad ass. To my hardcore hiking and climbing friends I'm something of a lightweight.  And try as I might, those perceptions sneak into my own perception of myself.  Fundamentally I hike because I love it and I always will; peripherally I'm a hyper-competitive person and I want to do as well or better than those around me.  Despite that, when I'm outside I exist outside my own perceptions.  It's strictly pass/ fail.  I enjoy myself or I don't. I find a little bit more about myself or I don't.  I haven't failed yet. ;)

Eagle Cap Hiking LaughingTotem Mirror Lake Oregon Photography Wallowas. Sat, 22 Sep 2012 22:44:54 GMT
Of Mountains, Moleskins, Ego, and the Eagle Cap. Part 2

Confusion, thy name is being jarred awake at 3:45 AM by a mountain lake to the repeated sound of a quacking duck. OK, that's too long to really be a name but iPod alarms are odd things.  I think I liked it better when I woke up to the sound of a beeping Casio LCD watch twenty years ago.  Sure it was annoying, but much less surreal, and life is surreal enough waking up in a tent.  A quick self inventory indicated that yes, my blisters looked like some thing that…well they looked like something, but despite the dirt were not showing signs of infection.  This would become ritual for the rest of the trip, wake up, look at feet, knock wood, lucky seven or snake eyes?  The trail was dusty and I couldn't keep bandage, moleskin, tape, nor second skin to stay in place so… I'm sure the sounds I made while wiping blisters down with an alcohol pad every morning and evening were quite amusing. A grown man whimpering seems to elicit that reaction.


I tried calling out to Gary and Katie that it was time to get up for our climb of Matterhorn and the traverse across to Sacajawea.  I called again.  Dammit, I was going to have to get out of my tent.  Discontent, thy name is leaving a warm sleeping bag.  I  stumbled over to Katie and Gary's tent and called until I received something that sounded like a confirming growl from Katie, otherwise one of the wolverines who had recently come back to the Eagle Cap had bedded down with K and G, I'm not sure which.  Either way there was no point in hanging around.  From there things were surprisingly smooth.  We prepped our summit packs and headed off at 4:30AM  by headlamp around the lake to start the climb.  

Looking down on Ice Lake

The climb to the summit of Matterhorn from the lake is a little over a mile and half and climbs 2000 feet. The rest of the ridge hike to Sacajawea would be about another mile and a quarter, crossing an unnamed intermediate peak 9775 feet high.  I'd love to take a geologist on this climb.  It's the rock equivalent of a three year old's playroom,  seemingly unrelated rock types scattered all over the place.  Someone tried to explain it to me, but after the description of the fourth geological" event" that helped shape the landscape, it became a buzzing in my ears.  Feeling good and with the immediate pain of my feet dulled by Ibuprofen, I took point position, trusting that if Gary wanted to bolt ahead he would let me know. Sans 40lb. pack and carrying about 8 lbs of camera gear I moved pretty comfortably. It's an amazing transition to the granite slabs and scree fields of the slopes of the mountain.  More and more vestiges of the previous winter's snow pack revealed themselves in small areas hidden from the midday sun.  The sun was rising to our backs over the Adams Creek valley and down into the Wallowa watershed,the first warm light of the sun had us shedding layers pretty quickly.

Gary and Katie during a rest break.

The dawn colors reflected in Ice lake, which was rapidly becoming a pond in respect to the vista surrounding it, soon to be a puddle.  

The summit came a little bit before 7AM. 

Image by Gary Sizer


Author and Katie on the summit face.

Image by Gary Sizer


Gary and Katie Summiting

A stiff breeze was blowing up from Hurricane Creek Basin which dropped 3300 feet in about a quarter mile from the summit, so yeah, it was a cliff.  We enjoyed a late breakfast of sharp cheddar cheese and snack sausages, barely discernible from the pet snacks called "Snausages", so it become cheese and snausages for the rest of the trip.  

Big grins all around.

View into Lakes Basin and Eagle Cap, our next destination.

After summit pics and eating we started down the ridgeline.  While not strenuous, the exposure can be a bit disconcerting, so we moved carefully.  The area just before the saddle that linked 9775 and Matterhorn consisted of some fairly steep down-climbing over slabs of granite, luckily the traction was amazing.  As we started the ascent of 9775 we came across a cave on the western slope. Cave on the saddle between Matterhorn and 9775

Yup, a cave. On top of the mountain.  Geology is pretty cool, huh?  A little while later I announced that I didn't think I was going to make the attempt across to Sacajawea.  I wasn't at my best and even though I had the most alpine/ mountaineering experience of the group, I felt like I'd be a liability rather than an asset.  If the climb did venture into the class 4 realm I didn't want G and K concentrating on me instead of the rock.  This is excerpted from the Mountain Madness Website found here.  



"Class 1: Hiking

Class 2: Simple scrambling, with the possible occasional use of the hands

Class 3: Scrambling; a rope might be carried

Class 4: Simple climbing, often with exposure. A rope is often used. A fall on Class 4 rock could be fatal. Typically, natural protection can be easily found

Class 5: Where rock climbing begins in earnest. Climbing involves the use of a rope, belaying, and protection (natural or artificial) to protect the leader from a long fall. Fifth class is further defined by a decimal and letter system – in increasing and difficulty. The ratings from 5.10-5.15 are subdivided in a, b, c and d levels to more precisely define the difficulty (for example: 5.10a or 5.11d)"


Katie readily agreed.  The traverse across to 9775 had been about the limit of her comfort zone which was class 3. View back to Matterhorn Summit.  Hurricane Creek valley to the right.


  Gary still wanted to make the attempt, so Katie and I waited as he started down the ridge.  About a quarter mile on he was stalled by the first gendarme, a spire of rock blocking the ridge, and having neither the time, nor possibly the inclination, to continue, he returned.   "Well, I found my limit!" he said cheerfully. I still want to go back and try it, but it looks as if it would be an all day affair and we were already a day behind. Instead of returning the way we came, I suggested we take a side ridge off of 9775 called the Hurwal Divide and descend down a scree slope back to the lake, via technique called "scree surfing" or "screeing" which is basically riding tiny little avalanches down a slope.  It sounds dangerous, but it's really quite safe and is often the quickest way to the bottom!  Katie was dubious, having never done it before but soon was descending with a grin and yell!  Katie and Gary Scree surfing down the Hurwal Divide.

As we neared the base of the Scree slope I look up and to the left and saw  two goats, a young one and it's mother, making quick work of some steep rock. From here it was a quick descent down next to the creek that feeds Ice Lake and then back to the campsite.

The goats making it look easy

It was about  11AM at this time. Our original plan was to camp after the descent, but my rest day had put us a day behind, so instead we were going to descend  the 5.5 miles back to the junction of the Ice Lake Trail and West Fork Wallowa Trail putting us only 3 miles behind our original schedule, but first… a nap.

Author taking a siesta.  Image by Gary Sizer

The final descent back to the WF Wallowa went by in a blur and at we were soon again at the first log crossing.  Katie, let me carry her pack across for her  to show my appreciation for her kindness on the way up!  We made camp at the site of the old bridge washout and anticipated the hike into the Lakes Basin Katie at camp by the bridge washout.  The log jam behind her is where we had to cross.


Up next. Part 3  Into the Lakes Basin.


Eagle Cap Hiking Hurwal Divide LaughingTotem Matterhorn Nature Sacajawea Tue, 18 Sep 2012 00:37:53 GMT
Of Mountains, Moleskins, Ego, and the Eagle Cap.  

Milky Way Over Eagle Cap

The first notion that I might be "The One" on my trip to Oregon's Eagle Cap Wilderness came a couple of weeks before departure time.  My wonderful wife came home from her professorial duties with a bad cold, which a week later,  in true, go-west pioneer fashion, decided to hop the virus wagon train into new territories, me. Another indicator that I might be, "The One"  was when, despite my best efforts, a half dozen overnights and day hikes, I couldn't get my new backpacking boots to break in properly forcing me to revert back to my older boots….which had given me blisters as well, but had at least broken in.  The final indicator that I might be, "The One" was one of my own making. While my trail companions  prepared for this trip via P90X and half marathon training, I had merely, and reluctantly, decreased my beer intake and increased my total running mileage by a paltry five miles a week… on the treadmill.


Despite all the quotes and ominous capitalization there is absolutely nothing special about being, "The One."  Every group has it; the caboose, the, sweep, the tail, the person bringing up the rear.  Someone's got to do it.  I just don't particularly care for it when it's me.  I might have an ego issue or two.


A little on the Eagle Cap Wilderness.  Located in the far northeast corner of Oregon, The Wallowa Mountains and the Eagle Cap Wilderness within, seem to have more in common with the California Sierras than the southern Cascade Mountains than most easterners associate with Oregon.  The climate is decidedly high desert/alpine, with most of the precipitation occurring as snow during the winter months.  Approaching from any direction except the east they seem to rise dramatically from the farmland and scrub desert that defines the inland Pacific Northwest. From the east the rise is more abrupt, the boundary with neighboring Idaho being the Snake River and the deepest canyon in the US, Hell's Canyon.  A drive from Riggins, Idaho, fifty miles distant, would take about five hours to navigate around the almost inaccessible gorge.


 None of the mountains in the Eagle Cap Wilderness top 10,000'.  The highest being Sacajawea at 9838'.  This tends to keep the trophy peak bagger hikers and climbers from taking the Eagle Cap TOO seriously, which means that, despite it's reputation as the most popular backpacking destination in eastern Oregon, the crowds tend to be a bit smaller than in the Cascades.  The centerpiece of the Eagle Cap Wilderness is the eponymous Eagle Cap. From it's slopes the Minam River, Lostine River, Wallowa River, Imnaha River, Eagle Creek, and Hurricane Creek watersheds radiate like spokes on a wheel.  Our planned weeklong trip would have us cutting a wedge from the far north/ northwest section of this circle.  We would climb southward upstream along the West Fork of the Wallowa River, with an eleven mile out and back side trip to Ice Lake and it's surrounding peaks, then up to Mirror Lake on the slopes of Eagle cap and then descend and exit along the East Fork of the Lostine River.  Approximately 40 total miles.


After arriving in Spokane, WA from Charlotte, NC with Gary and Katie, my friends and regular hiking partners in crime, we drove four and a half hours to Enterprise Oregon, got our room, had an excellent dinner and brews at Terminal Gravity brewing Company and prepared for the shuttle the next day.  Our shuttle was provided by Mac Huff from Eagle Cap Fishing Guides.  He provided a wealth of local information regarding flora and fauna and seemed to soak up any information he could about our Southern Appalachian landscape.  His enthusiasm was contagious and the 35 mile drive from our exit point on the Lostine River to the Wallowa Lake trailhead only increased our enthusiasm.  

Looking up the West Fork Wallowa


Or at least for about half an hour. "Uh, I'm feeling a little rough."  I started.  Gary had set the pace and I was, frankly, not ready for it.  Two years prior we had done the Long Range Traverse in Gros Morne NP Newfoundland.  At that time I was in slightly better shape than he was but at 6' 3" to my 5' 7.5" (Yes I'm counting the half inch dang it!) we were able to keep approximately the same pace.  This time I felt like a chihuahua trying to keep pace with a greyhound. My little legs spinning and my tongue lolling out.  Gary was obviously in his element and he was breathing evenly.  Katie, as usual seemed to be unaffected by whatever went on around her. She was simple economy of movement and she listened to her body.  I on the other hand refused to accept what my body was telling me.  At the two mile point I started to feel a hotspot.  I immediately asked for a break so I could tape my heels. Blister care 101(Picture by Gary Sizer)  Nurse Katie on the left, author on the right

Half a mile further on, the trail to Ice Lake split off from the West Fork Wallowa trail with a log crossing the West Fork of the Wallowa River.  Here at least I was in my element.  I always loved walking tree limbs and guard rails when I was a kid.  I never got over it.  On the far side of the crossing we took a short break, I checked my heels.  "Oh, Man…"  Whether due to the lack of conditioning, the virus or who knows what, I had sweat the tape right off of my heels.   Even after cleaning with an alcohol wipe nothing would stick to my heels for long.  2.5 miles in and blisters were a foregone conclusion.  We refilled our water bottles at the crossing because although the trail paralleled Adams Creek, it was often far below us in a gorge.


Another mile on, my legs started to feel rubbery, I had told Gary and Katie to go on ahead at the log crossing and I would just catch up.  "KATIE, HOLD UP!"  I yelled ahead.  "I'M CRAMPING!"  I sat down in the warm sun at the end of a switchback in the trail.  It was a field of grass and wildflowers surrounded by the peaks along the River.  Within ten seconds my right calf cramped so badly that my toes straightened right out, my lower leg forming an exclamation point of my folly.  I had been taking water at regular intervals but apparently my electrolyte levels hadn't been getting replenished nearly enough.  As opposed to the humid Southeast sweat doesn't stick around very long in the arid west, so using sweat as an indication of dehydration and salt loss is a no no.  Katie and Gary both came down to my aid.  I could see them swapping concerned glances and going into contingency mode.


This is the truly odd part, part of me was miserable and the rest of me ridiculously happy.  I was in one of my favorite places on earth.  Part of my soul lifts every time I get in a natural place. Clark's Nutcrackers, Magpies, Western Chipmunks etc. were like rarely visited dear friends.  I had no intention of quitting this trip. Pain was pain, but unless infection set in or I allowed myself to get so dehydrated heat stroke came on, it was going to be a matter of pain management.  The hard part would be convincing my trail mates that I was going to be OK. 











(Picture by Gary Sizer) One of the views looking down on Adams Creek

I took a powdered electrolyte supplement that I had brought and it definitely helped.  Katie insisted on taking sweep position and spent the next four and a half miles  with me, despite my protestations that she move at her own pace.  I joked at my own discomfort to both reassure Katie and to take my mind off of it.  We arrived at Ice Lake about an hour before sunset.  Approximately 8 miles and 3300 feet of vertical in five and a half hours.  It was as stunning as it had been my last visit in 2007.  Peaks form a nearly unbroken ring around the lake with the geology running the gamut from granite to limestone to basalt, the water a deep indigo.  A place that felt like home.  

Our original plan was to climb the Matterhorn, one of the surrounding peaks, traverse across a ridge and attempt a class III-IV scramble across another ridge to Sacajawea Peak.  I made the suggestion we take a rest day so I could recover.  I hated doing it because this whole silly adventure had been my idea.  Pictures had been put on refrigerators, days spent in anticipation.  Katie and Gary readily agreed, adding that we could always just turn around at any time…  After watching the sun set over the Matterhorn we stayed up and watched the most spectacular stellar display we had ever seen.  The Wallowa Mountains exist in one of the darkest spots in the US, with almost no light pollution.   I arose before dawn the following morning, feeling much better, I wandered the lake and took pictures of the small wildlife that live around it,

waterfalls that fed into and out of it,

and the peaks that surround it. Gary and Katie joined me for a couple mile walk around the lake up beyond a waterfall where a mountain meadow with a meandering creek running through it looked like it was taken straight out of an early fifties disney film.  It was a day of vacation, which after all, was the point.  

Day two-climbing the Matterhorn. Coming soon.

Eagle Cap Hiking LaughingTotem Lostine Mirror Lake Nature Wallowa Waterfalls Wildlife Sun, 16 Sep 2012 22:34:02 GMT
I hate old adages...  

I'm soaked through.  Between the pack on my back and the chest harness that holds my camera for easy access, I'm a sandwich of sweat.  "Bad weather makes for good photography" is how the old adage goes.  I hate adages.  Actually, at this point I'm pretty much a sour smelling sourpuss. Don't get me wrong,  I LOVE the area I'm hiking.

The area around Grayson Highlands State Park in southwest Virginia has pretty much everything you could want for hiking in the Southeastern US: rolling green hills climbing up to peaks just short of 6000 ft. and steep valleys with babbling or cascading creeks falling toward the surrounding farmland. It also has one ace up its sleeve as far as public interest goes - wild ponies.  Yup, cute, photogenic wild ponies.  An additional benefit is that a lot of the actual ridge line is open due to grazing and fire.  The ponies can be seen from a long way off.  All of this makes the two and a half hour drive from my place well worth a visit, even for a simple overnight.

I checked the weather and it looked good for photography.  A 50% chance of rain the first day followed by a 30% chance the second.  Rain means clouds, clouds mean interesting skies, and a decreasing chance of rain meant that there was an increased chance of clearing. Increased clearing means I probably wasn't going to get stuck under a blanket of even overcast, the only thing more boring in a pic than a perfectly clear blue sky.  All-in-all, a chancy endeavor, I'll admit.

The temperature was also going to be in the low to mid 70s!  Positively frigid compared to the 90s that had been the norm all summer in the Piedmont of NC.  'Nuff said.  VA here I come.  I decided on a route that I hadn't taken before.  Climbing up from a trailhead in the State Park to the Appalachian Trail, I would make a 12 mile loop that would take me up from a creek basin and up and over the highest clear ridges of the area. The ideal trip, or so I imagined…

Two miles into the hike and I'm a dripping mess.  Two words had escaped my thought processes during planning…

Relative humidity.  Numerical value?  90%.  

I hate adages.

I'm still in the woods and I won't break into the open air of the ridges until mile 4.  The still air is mocking me, and I'm taking in water from my hydration pack like crazy.  I'm sweating, it's 75 degrees, and my sweat is going nowhere. I take another swig on the Camel Back and recall a run-in with a pony on a previous trip.

I was kneeling to take an eye level pic of a foal when I felt a tugging on my shoulder.  I turned to find a pony, the hose to my hydration pack in his mouth, casually taking a drink.  After a brief tug of war, I pulled the hose out, only to find that he had bitten the valve - the one that keeps the water from pouring out all over the place - neatly off.  The pony looked me squarely in the eye, chewed the plastic bit, and swallowed.  I stood dejectedly with my water pouring out of the reservoir.  Pony 1, Hiker/photographer, 0.

Nothing like that was going to happen this time I hope.

At about 4 miles I come into the open, the air completely still, the sky overcast like I had dreaded.  My only solace is the blueberries and blackberries that line the trail.   OK, it was good solace. In front of me, at 5 miles in, is the old corral called "The Scales," now a small campground nestled in a low gap and accessible for those who want to explore the ridges of the area via short day hikes.  On the hill beyond The Scales, I see patches of white, black, and tan moving across the landscape.  Ponies!  Hmm, look kind of big though. Probably just a trick of perspective.  I hurry down and across the Scales and start up the trail on the far side.  Two hundred yards up the trail I round a bend and find…cattle standing in the trail, including…

Two. Big. Bulls.

Now I don't consider myself a coward, but I'll admit a certain tightening of certain muscles.  I slowly make way around the bovine bystanders, ensuring that I don't get between the bulls and, well, pretty much anything.  On the far side, I look back and see that there ARE ponies.  Only, there is a herd of cattle with two long horns between myself and them.  Discretion becomes the better part of valor and I move reluctantly on.  "Well, maybe it'll clear and I'll get some landscapes up on the ridge."  Three miles later, I'm slogging up the last rise into Rhododendron Gap.  It's raining and misting on and off.  Fog has encompassed the ridge and I'm thoroughly soaked in sweat and rain.  I'm tired of being wet.  I find a relatively flat spot on the bald at the gap, set up my tent in the rain, crawl in, and almost immediately fall asleep.

Forty-five minutes later a loud snort wakes me up!  I prairie dog my head out of the tent and WHOOPS!  I'm surrounded!  The ponies had apparently followed me up the ridge and were now snacking on the grass in the gap.  I quickly grab my camera and spend the next hour and a half running around taking pony pictures, including several of a photogenic young foal and its momma.

 And this is where I have my run in with "Teen Miscreant Pony,"  a yearling, or so my uneducated observations lead me to believe. Teen miscreant pony is trying to eat my tent.  I keep pushing him away, but he keeps coming back. He finally turns around to kick me. From that point it takes several well placed prods from the hiking sticks to keep him away.  I gently put the tip of the hiking pole against his side and push.  I'm pretty sure it didn't hurt him or even do much to discourage him because the following morning he would try to get to the granola bar in my pocket.  It really is for his own good.  If he colicked I will feel much worse.


Slowly I realize that the light is changing, becoming more directional.

  In my effort to catch photos of the ponies, I had completely missed the fog lifting.  I grab the tripod and head for a pile of rock that gives the best view over the surrounding landscape.  I see that the low overcast has cleared and the sun is periodically peeking through.  I also notice a fog bank rising from the valley floor.  I'm amazed at its rate of ascent.   I hope that it will hold off until sunset, but it isn't to be.  I take pics until I'm once again engulfed in fog.  The ponies have left for the meadow the next saddle over, so I make dinner and retire to my tent yet again.  Reading with my headlamp on in the tent, I slowly notice the yellow interior of the tent take on a glow.  Once again my head pops out and "Son of a…"  I see the last light of the sunset breaking over the ridge.  Once again I grab my gear to make the 200 yard sprint to the rocks and climb to my perch.  The fog had settled back out again and it added amazing texture to the foreground.  I spend the next few minutes mesmerized.  When the sunset finally ends I return to my tent, happy with the end to a day that had a less than brilliant start.


The next morning I awake to a slight overcast, but a beautiful varied sky.  The air is still and every surface is beaded with dew and condensation.  I climb back up on the rocks, already considering the short hike back to the car, turn and take a couple pictures of my campsite.  Looking back I remember the discomfort, the intellectual knowledge of what "bad weather" meant, and the dawning reality of cloth stuck to skin, socks squishing in boots, and the uncertainty of goals sought.


I hate adages,  They're tired and nobody really thinks about what they really say,  but that doesn't make them any less prone to truth.




Grayson Highlands Hiking LaughingTotem Nature Photography Ponies Virginia. Thu, 09 Aug 2012 02:33:59 GMT
LaughingTotem, Up and Running. Long time coming, but the site and shopping cart are up and running.  So come get some!   This is where I'm going to keep you fine people updated on photo/hiking trip reports, news about my GAS  (that's Gear Acquisition Syndrome) and reviews of hiking and camping equipment.  I might even let slip a couple of my secret photo spots.  So keep it tuned.  

Hiking LaughingTotem Nature Photography Reviews. Wed, 04 Jul 2012 12:15:22 GMT