Friday, January 30, 2015

Musings: Life Lessons on the Trail

Saint Edward State Park - Lainey Piland photo

How to Have a Successful Hike.  I stumbled across this wonderful blog post on the Pacific Crest Trail Association website and can't say enough how much I appreciate author Joan West's thoughts on what it truly means to be successful. This wisdom applies not only to hiking, but really to life in general.

In 2014, Joan West set out to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. Clearly, this is a daunting endeavor, but come hell or high water, Joan was single-mindedly focused on accomplishing her goal of making it to Canada. However, a stress fracture in her foot derailed those plans. Head on over to Joan's Rambling Hemlocks blog (love that name!) to read her excellent take on how a failed attempt to thru-hike the PCT became a revelation about defining your own success and enjoying the journey.

Joan's writing about her experience on the PCT really got me thinking about my own experiences in the outdoors...

Defining your own success.

Don't compare yourself to others.  Instead, focus on the reasons why you are here.  What are you hoping to get out of this? What matters to you?

Getting involved in the world of active outdoorsy people can be a bit intimidating.  I myself have often wondered whether or not my experiences stack up to those of others.  I will never thru-hike the PCT, or any other long-distance trail.  I've never snow-shoed, backpacked, or hiked up a mountain (although those are all things I hope to try at some point). My hikes are usually no more than four miles round-trip, and occur in nearby state parks, watershed preserves, and conservation areas - bits of second-growth forest and reclaimed natural space carved out of suburbia - rather than remote, unspoiled wilderness.

So am I a failure as a hiker because I've never been on a beastly weeklong backpacking trip in the wilderness? Am I just a "wannabe"? Not at all. I just have to remind myself of what my own purpose is when I head outdoors for a hike: exercise, fresh air, and a chance to feast my hungry eyes on that beautiful Pacific Northwest nature which makes me feel at home. And of course, to take photos and have experiences that I can share with you all on my blog.  Regardless of whether I've hiked 15 miles in the remote wilderness or 3 miles in nearby Saint Edward State Park... if I accomplish those things, I am successful, because I have fulfilled my own defined purpose for setting out on that hike.

Enjoying the journey

Don't become so laser-focused on the end goal that you miss out on all the beautiful details, opportunities, and experiences that happen along the way.

When out hiking, I have no trouble enjoying the journey. I stop and look at interesting trees, plants, birds, and views along the trail and take lots of photos, rather than blazing straight through to the end destination. I always feel a little bit sad when I'm out hiking and pass by other people who have headphones stuffed in their ears, with blank gaze fixed straight ahead as they blast by me, running along the trail. Now, their purpose in being on the trail is probably primarily to get exercise - which is great - but in pursuing that goal of exercise, they are also missing out on some pretty amazing sights and sounds in the scenery around them.

Trail to Wallace Falls - Lainey Piland photo
On my recent hike to Wallace Falls, it would have been easy enough to put on blinders and forge ahead on the challenging trail, ignoring the other trees and interesting scenery because it wasn't the falls.  A view of the river, a notched stump, filtered sunlight falling on the trail ahead... seeing these things wasn't the end goal of the hike. The end goal was to see the falls. However, that doesn't mean that you can't allow yourself to enjoy and appreciate other things along the way. And trust me, as out of shape as I was (am) and with the amount of uphill climbing that hike included... let's just say that I stopped and looked around and enjoyed the journey a lot!

These two lessons - defining your own success and enjoying the journey - are applicable not only to hiking (or any other activity) specifically, but also to life in general.  How fulfilled would our lives be if we would stop comparing ourselves to others? If we chose to be present, joyful, and appreciative in every moment, not just when we feel we've "made it"?  If anyone ever finds out... please let me know!

Thoughts? Please share in the comments below!

Friday, January 16, 2015

2014 Was a Record Year for Climate Change

... and that's not necessarily a good thing. Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) confirmed that 2014 was the hottest year on record, with global temperatures on average 1.24 degrees F above normal.

Click here to read the full NOAA report for 2014

In addition to snagging the award for being the hottest year on record, 2014 was also the 38th consecutive year of above-average global temperatures, following the alarming warming trend driven by climate change.  How alarming is this warming trend? Well, 9 of the 10 hottest years on record have happened since the year 2002. That's a very high concentration of record-hot years in a very short time span.

The fact that our global climate is changing at an unprecedented rate is undeniable.  Also undeniable is the fact that human activity is responsible, mainly through burning fossil fuels that fill the atmosphere with heat-trapping carbon dioxide. In case you're wondering, the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are also at record-high levels, holding steady at a gut-wrenching 399 parts per million (ppm). For the most up-to-date and completely terrifying climate stats, check out NASA's Global Climate Change site, where they're listed in the header - you can't miss them.

The anticipated effects of climate change are well-documented.  Left unchecked, our rampant burning of fossil fuels will heat up the earth enough to melt the Arctic (with Antarctica not far behind), increase the intensity of severe weather events such as heat waves and hurricanes, lead to food and water shortages, increase death and illness, raise sea levels, cause species extinctions and loss of biodiversity, acidify the ocean (actually, this is already well underway...), and just in general make planet earth an unpleasant and difficult place to live. For climate change effects specific to the United States, take a look at the National Climate Assessment released earlier this year.

But here's the good news: 2014 was also a record year for climate change activism.  On September 21st, an estimated 400,000 people filled the streets of New York City for the People's Climate March - the biggest-ever climate demonstration. The Go Fossil Free campaign - which urges universities, cities, and churches to pull their investments out of the fossil fuel industry - experienced tremendous victories in 2014.  President Obama has also given us reason to hope, with his vow to veto a bill approving construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, as well as issuing his Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, and placing carbon emissions under the jurisdiction of the Clean Air Act.

There are reasons to be hopeful.  But we are still so far away from taking the necessary action to truly address this problem. Even taking drastic action now, we'll still see significant climate effects in the decades to come thanks to the legacy of lingering carbon pollution in the atmosphere.  If we don't take drastic action - very soon - let's just say that we're toast.  Literally.

It is easy to see the effects of climate change, even just looking out the window. As I write this, all the windows in my house are open to the sunshine and fresh air. In January. In the middle of winter.  It is sunny and a balmy 50 degrees here in the Seattle area. Looking at the NOAA map above, you can see that Washington falls into the "much warmer than average" category. We're coming off the warmest Seattle December in history, and the long-range forecast for our region shows that the remainder of the winter will be much warmer and drier than normal. Snowpack in the mountains is dangerously below normal.  We could be looking at a non-existent ski season, and certainly some water shortages this summer.

From my living room window, Mount Rainier is a faint blue lump on the horizon. Even this iconic landmark of our state is under grave threat from climate change.  The Tacoma News Tribune recently printed a wonderfully in-depth assessment of climate change at Mount Rainier National Park.  It's long and heart-wrenching, but worth the read.

I love Washington state.  I grew up here. I grew up listening to rain hammering endlessly on the roof all winter long, seeing the mountains completely white with snow, and playing in summer sunshine that was warm but not too hot. These things are all changing - and all within my lifetime of just 29 years.  What will my beloved Pacific Northwest look like in another 29 years? It's almost frightening to consider. What I know for sure is that this place is worth protecting. For ourselves, for the species that live here, and for the region's own intrinsic value.

Let's hope that 2015 is a better year for our climate.

Lainey Piland photo

Friday, January 2, 2015

Wanderings: Wallace Falls First Day Hike

Wise words on the trail to Wallace Falls. Lainey Piland photo

Although it may be difficult to believe given the nature of this blog, I was not a fan of hiking in my younger days.  As a child, the mere suggestion of going for a hike would cause me to cringe, and I'm sure plenty of whining and pouting would ensue.  Given my enthusiasm for hiking now as an adult, I was always a bit mystified as to why I was so averse to the activity as a child. However, after going for a "first day hike" yesterday, I may have found the culprit: Wallace Falls.

My memory is terrible, but I'm pretty sure that I was taken for a hike at Wallace Falls as a child.  During the first day hike yesterday, after the first set of switchbacks and steep up-up-uphill climb, I had a sense that this is where my childhood hiking career had gone off the rails - if not this hike, then a similarly difficult one. My lungs were burning with exertion and from the cold air heaving in and out of them; each of my feet felt like they weighed 50 lbs; and all I could think was "Ohmygoodness I'm so out of shape -- but WOW is this beautiful!"

That pretty much sums up the hike right there!

My husband and I participated in our first "first day hike" on new year's day last year, when we trekked around Deception Pass State Park.  Many Washington State Parks again hosted January 1st hikes this year, including Wallace Falls State Park. Since my husband and I had never hiked Wallace Falls together, we decided to give it a go for our 2015 first day hike.

We arrived at Wallace Falls State Park around noon, and were confronted with a completely full parking lot. After a few anxious moments of searching, we located the last lone parking spot and quickly claimed it.  After bundling up (temperatures were in the low 30's), and getting our gear in order, we set out toward the trailhead.  I was especially excited for this hike, as it was the first time I would get to try out my new Camelbak backpack and my NEW DSLR CAMERA I received as Christmas gifts!

Could be a nice view if not for the power lines!

After a short jaunt beneath towering powerlines that buzzed and crackled ominously in the frigid air, we entered the forest and veered off to the right, onto the Woody Trail. This section of the trail was pleasant and easy, following the rushing Wallace River.  We passed a few hikers who, like us, were just setting out. The first person we encountered coming back down the trail was a friendly looking man who was red-faced and out of breath. He grinned at us and gasped "Happy New Year! Enjoy... the hike... wow, it's amazing but... it's a workout!"

This was the first indication that we had some difficult terrain ahead of us!

And really, the terrain was a bit more rugged than I had expected.  Of course, you always expect to have some uphill slogging to do whenever you embark on a waterfall hike.  So the switchbacks, stairs, and steep uphill climbs weren't unexpected.  What I hadn't anticipated was the rough trail studded with large rocks and laced with tree roots which would trip you up if you weren't paying attention to your footing! In order to fully appreciate the scenery (and catch my breath... ahem...) we'd occasionally stop walking and look around for a few moments. I also snapped a few photos during these breaks...

Wallace River

Wallace River

Old cedar stump and a decadent forest!

Sword fern grove

After climbing many stairs, crossing a few icy bridges, and navigating some leg-burning switchbacks, we arrived at the Lower Falls.  From the viewpoint, you can see a few smaller falls below, tumbling over large boulders in the clear, ice-cold river.  I played with the shutter speeds on my new camera and was delighted to find that I could now capture waterfalls in those cool long-exposure shots where the water is all blurry and silky-looking.

Lower Falls

Lower Falls

Then, through a narrow opening in the trees - almost as though looking through a keyhole - I noticed the big Wallace Falls shining like a beacon in the distance.  Our eyes were on the prize.  Middle Falls, here we come!

Sneak peek of the Middle Falls

We left behind the crowded Lower Falls picnic/gathering area and continued on. The Middle Falls viewpoint was only three-tenths of a mile further. Not that bad, I thought.  Until the gently sloping trail butted up against a steep hillside. I squinted up at the top of the hill.  There were people up there. There were people traversing switchbacks across its face. Oh my goodness. That was a long way up! I had to squelch the complaining of my inner hiking-averse childhood self (and my burning lungs), and continued on.  Visions of Wallace Falls danced before my eyes and pulled me onward.

And then we made it at last! Rounding a corner, we found the viewpoint clinging to the shoulder of the hill, and there, beyond the frost-covered wooden railing, was the awesomely beautiful Middle Wallace Falls. Lit by late-afternoon sunlight, the falls was a stunning reward for the difficult two miles we'd hiked so far!

Middle Falls! It's easy to see which areas don't get sunlight this time of year - they were frozen!

After spending several minutes enjoying the view, we turned around and headed back down the trail.  We could have continued on to the Upper Falls - it wasn't too much further - but it was even more difficult uphill climbing than we'd already done.  I wouldn't be able to make it, although my husband was feeling fit and strong and no doubt would have been just fine!

For the return trip, I stowed my camera in my backpack so I could focus on the scenery instead of taking photos. The forest in Wallace Falls State Park really is beautiful, and quite decadent! The second-growth forest is thick with cedars and bigleaf maple; their branches thickly covered in moss.  In places, the forest floor is covered with sword fern, and in other places, new saplings are crowded among downed trees and nurse logs.  There are also plenty of long-dead old-growth cedar stumps bearing notches that speak to the logging industry that was once active here. Streams of water drip down hillsides and trickle across the trail here and there.  This truly is a wondrous, awe-inspiring place.

Hemlock and moss-covered cedar

On the way back down the trail, we passed many groups of hikers who were just starting out. This late in the day, it was doubtful they'd make it to the falls and back before dark.  Even starting out at noon, I was afraid daylight would be waning beyond my comfort zone by the time we completed our hike.  As we walked back beneath the humming power lines toward the parking lot, the late-afternoon sunlight was slanting golden through the atmosphere, casting long shadows as the sun eased toward the horizon.  Just another reminder that it is so important to be conscious of daylight when you're hiking in the wintertime.

Our second annual "first day hike" was truly enjoyable despite how out of shape I am and how difficult this hike was for me. It really felt like an accomplishment to hike up to the falls and back down under my own power - to push my body beyond its comfort zone (and current fitness level!) and still be able to attain the end goal.  To see the falls.

First day hikes are a lot of fun, and I would recommend to anyone to add this to their holiday traditions.  The trails are usually quite crowded, but there is a congenial atmosphere among all the hikers.  Everyone is happy to be there.  Everyone smiles and says "Happy New Year!" as they pass by.  It's obvious that some are seasoned hikers and others are brand-new to this whole thing, and there's just something inspiring about a day that encourages all of us to get out on the trails and enjoy a shared experience.

Here's to 2015!