Friday, January 30, 2009

Finding myself

So my "Find Me SPOT" arrived in the mail today. It's my parents' Christmas gift to themselves me. The deal is I carry a big orange hunk of plastic with three easy-to-use "Help, "I'm OK" and "911" buttons, and the device tracks me wherever I go and transmits my location to a remote Web site. After I reportedly lost myself for three days during last year's Iditarod Trail Invitational race, I think my parents just decided the SPOT would pay for itself in anxiety medication.

Today I set out on snowshoes with the SPOT and my GPS to intentionally get lost in the woods. I have an unnaturally terrible sense of direction for an adventure junkie, and I'm trying to sharpen my woeful skills in reading the terrain and route-finding. The idea is to cut my own trail through the dense woods, reading the topo maps, distance and elevation on my GPS as I go, and track my progress so I don't wander around in circles. And yes, I recognize that it is pretty hard to get hopelessly lost when you are tromping your own rather obvious path through the snow. That's my insurance policy. Even then, there is always on the periphery a light urge to panic - "Aaaa, I'm lost in the woods!" - an urge honed after many years of having a spectacularly bad sense of direction.

But GPS reading could come in handy if I ever find myself actually lost in a more remote section of this state. Rain fell hard in the late morning as I set my snowshoes into a foot of unbroken, oversaturated snow and began the dull trudge. I know I'll never convince readers of this blog that the combination of 35 degrees,wind and heavy rain is the worst weather in the world, but it's something I believe with unwavering faith. Maybe it's because the weather is like that in Juneau quite a lot. Quite a soul-crushing lot. Enough that it can really help a person overlook all of the beautiful days that make living here worth it.

Either way, the trudge. Breaking trail through a foot of new, wet snow is a crazy hard workout. I set out today for a five-hour hike, but five hours of hiking in stuff like that is really closer in effort to five hours of running. Heart-pounding running. At 1.5 mph. In other words, another great Iditarod workout. I'm seriously sore right now, in muscles that I actually use quite a lot - like my quads. I'm going to have to incorporate the trudge more often.

But I did successfully wander off into the woods and direct myself to a full loop that took me up the steep slopes on the south side of Mount Jumbo, down across several miles of muskeg and stream crossings, then dropping down the mountain through the devil's club stalks, log jams and overflowing creeks. I ended up on the far side of the Treadwell mine - way beyond the point where the shoreline trail ends. I came to a cliff and actually had to climb down an old mining structure, into a creek, to get around it. Lucky for waterproof boots (yep, definitely waterproof.) When I realized how far south I had come, I had to pick up the pace along the shoreline to try to make it home before dark. My snowshoes felt like they weighed 40 pounds, which was probably close to their actual weight, from all of the ice I had picked up walking through overflow.

During a five-hour trudge like that, with the decisions I'm facing, you'd think I'd have a lot of time to sort through my life. But it's strangely just the opposite. I don't think about my outside life at all. Even though I have all of these modern devices that keep safety from really being an issue in that situation, I still find myself every bit as alert and focused in the moment as I would if I were actually lost in the woods. Even though SPOT knows where I am, I don't know where I am, and every step I take carries me farther into the unknown. So all I think about are the crunch of my footsteps, the snow patterns on a tree trunk, the way each tree looks different from the last tree, the cloud-obscured features of mountains, the deer tracks that I hope mark the best path through a thick grove of spruce ... I like it when this is all I think about for five hours: the simple path forward. Things which never seemed obvious before become obvious. Landscapes become landmarks. I lose myself and find my way home.


  1. I'll back up your claim of 35 degrees, wind and rain as the most miserable weather there is. That's what I tell people that take my winter camping classes. I'd rather be out in -20 then 35 degrees and rain. I can stay warm in -20, but not at 35 degrees when I'm wet.

  2. I've done 35 degrees, wind and rain before, many times. I take an umbrella with me to keep dry, if the wind isn't really strong I'll use it. I hike in blue jeans so if it's windy usually the front of my legs or the back of my legs gets wet.

    As far as hiking at night goes being stuck out in the snow at night is an easy hike and quite peacefull actually. The snow makes it easy to see where you're going and your footprints. I've been out in the woods watching a 24-hour mountainbike race at night and have had to walk 4 miles along the course with no flashlight or moonlight to see by, that was fun.

  3. i'll agree... i've been ice climbing in 33degree temp with pouring rain and -22 degree temp with no wind/snow. the 33 degree temp with rain is infinitely more miserable.

  4. Come Iditarod, this reader glad for Spot too.

    See Spot ride, ride Spot ride.

    Thanks Mom!

  5. That is a cool little device!

    "I don't think about my outside life at all."

    I have an awful tendency to think about everything when I ride. For that reason, I'll go find the most technical trail to ride. I figure that if my mind is consumed with navigating through rocks and roots, it won't be able to wander to life issues. After about 40 minutes, my mind is clear and I go hit the easier stuff. :-) It's like meditation.

  6. After a crash on a 'secret' trail that almost no one else uses (and with no cell phone reception) that left me with a broken rib and a bruised spleen, I've been looking into 'personal locator beacons'.

    Did you try out sending 'I'm OK' messages to see whether spot was working? I've been reading some reports of it going on the blink at critical times. Any reports about how it works would be great.


  7. Hey Bossman, thank you for the offer, really, thank you. But one month unpaid and a raise is just not enough to alter the course of my short term career and life goals.

    I know you got a rec to fill but if you want my skill set to help build your Empire, there is a ten letter word that must enter your plea. It starts with an S and has two B's. And it's going to last at least a year.

    What's that? You can't wait that long? I understand, really, I do. But I'm going for this long bike ride up state soon. And when I cross the finish line I'm gonna keep on going. The world is my venue, the written word my means. There are very few people on the planet capable of the extremes that form my normality. Fewer still who can express it with flair. And I have a partner who has embraced this dare.

    So thank you anyway, really, thank you. I'll keep you posted.

  8. I love being in the moment. For me it's when I'm on my horse. Gotta pay attention then and it's so wonderful.

    Sounds like an amazing hike...and I totally believe you about the worst weather conditions...rain and wind suck.

  9. "The simple path forward", I like that.

    Ditto cold rain. I've lived much of my life in Washington Sate, both east side and west side. That cold rain is just too hard to defend against for extended periods. It takes it out of you like a missing drain plug.

    Yr Pal Dr C

  10. KB -

    In my experience with using SPOT and sending "OK" messsages, it worked very well. I spend long periods working in remote regions far outside of cell phone range, and I am required to send spot messages a few times a day. I've never used the "help" or "911" buttons, but some of the people on my jobs have at time had to use the "help" buttons on their units and it worked great for them. Obviously it is in general a last resort item, you should still have your outdoor skills up to par before you go wandering too far, but it is a little comfortable when your a 100 miles from nowhere and nobody else knows exactly where you are.

  11. Believe me... That spot will save our whole family from a lot of anxiety. Best gift ever for your adventure.

    Now just remember to take it with you!!!

  12. "I lose myself and find my way home."

    I get you.


    I thought you might enjoy this piece of gear!

  14. I'll take 18 degrees, no wind and dry over 35 degrees, wind and rain any day (or evening).

    But that's in NYC.

    We have survival stations along all the trails.

    We call them delis or bodegas.

  15. Hey Jill,

    First thanks for the signed book! I'm reading it now. Second I've had that lost in the woods feeling. Third I must be taking after you and took the Gary Fisher Mullet out with studs after a snowstorm then a rainstorm then quick freeze.

    So I can epathize with your snowshoeing adventure. Check out the sound on the blog... I'm sure you're familiar with it.


  16. What a lovely blog. I haven't been motivated to ride a bike since I moved here from the NEtherlands. I have never riden in this kind of cold and snow we have up here, but maybe I could do it :)

  17. Sometimes when you lose yourself so much and get completely obsessed and focused with staying alive and getting home, you find the perspective and calm to eventually resolve who you are and where you want to be in the rest of your life.

    This was how I thought your post was going to end but it's probably just my ending...

    Having just accepted a new job myself, (I delayed it as long as I could), I have spent the rest of the week regretting it and I'm reading with anticipation to find out what conclusions you make about your own choices.

    However, after an extremely constructive morning of cleaning today, I have concluded that the only person putting pressure on me in my new job right now is me so I'm pulling shoulders upright and getting on with life as usual.

    I'll probably go out on my bike tomorrow.

  18. Jill...Read the book a second time this past week. My friend is jealous I have an autographed copy. Thanks so much for sharing your story.

    The "Spot" will bring a great sense of relief to those keeping track of your progress during the race. A little added security can be a good thing.

    As far as that Juneau weather goes...I've ridden in -42 F windchills and at a very wet 45 F, and I will take the minus 42 any day. At least I wasn't wet!!

  19. *Warning - random jumble of Spot information*

    Oh, I got one of these toys for Christmas from my parents as well. I've been going out testing it - the OK function requires more clear sky than a GPS, so will often be a bit useless if you're in trees or deep valleys. As long as you're aware of that, it seems to work pretty well.

    And the tracking function (which you can get for free through cunning use of Fire Eagle membership) is fun to play with. It's supposed to send out a location message every 10 minutes - which it doesn't always (at least not when it's sitting in the top of my pack), but it does a pretty good job.

    Oh, and if you want to save the points - I think they stay in the website for 30 days, and in the shared page for 7 days.

  20. Just lost myself in your writing. :-)

    I'm currently catching up on all my favourite blogs after being away on holidays and loved reading about your Mom's present. It's a typical "Mom present" but it sure will reduce a lot of other people's anxiety including mine.

  21. SPOT. Great idea. For inspiration on how it might better integrate with your present and future ambitions, give a listen to joe frank, with a reason for staying lost in "ascent to K2", over at Its joe at his best and seems to follow your trail.


Feedback is always appreciated!