Monday, August 7, 2017

The Grand Gallivant: Meet Me at the Fair

Building a straw-bale veggie and mushroom garden at one of the hands-on workshops

Just a few days ago, one of the Facebook pages I like (WWOOF-USA) mentioned that they were going to be at the Mother Earth News Fair in Albany, Oregon, over the weekend. I nearly had a happy heart attack— I’m a big fan of the magazine and had read about the fairs before, but it didn’t occur to me that I’d be within striking distance of one on this trip. Albany is only an hour and a half away! I yelled to Zach that I had great news, chattered excitedly as I scrolled through the list of workshops, and bought an online package deal that cost $35, for both of us, for the whole weekend. Score!

I discovered Mother Earth News (begun in 1970) sometime last year at the library, and instantly fell in love: even though their target audience is generally rural organic homesteaders and farmers, their focus on sustainability through self-reliance applies to anyone. Their fairs advertise as “Bringing the magazine to life,” and I couldn’t wait to see what that looked like.

Schedule and notes
We drove to the Linn County Fairgrounds on Saturday morning, arriving just in time to dive into the first of five sessions that day. I had already carefully planned out what we were going to see (sometimes together, sometimes separately), and today was booked solid. 

We entered the expo center, dizzied by the sound of the crowds and the various demonstrations at the vendor booths, and looked around at the tapestry of people. A dreadlocked lesbian couple were sampling goat milk soap next to an old man wearing overalls and a plaid shirt; a cluster of middle-aged women with cross necklaces were oohing and ahhing over a log-splitting tool while a young bearded man carrying a baby discussed the pros and cons of Langstroth hives with a crisply-dressed vendor. Singles, couples, and families, young and old, rural and metropolitan, everyone was here for a common goal: learn how to make the best use of our time and resources through the lens of homesteading.

Each class or workshop was an hour long, with 15-30 minutes in between for us to catch our breath, sneak a snack, wander through the massive vendor area, peruse the Mother Earth News Bookstore (I wrote down the names of almost 40 books, and found 20 of them at my local library— I’ve put them on reserve for when I get home), or admire the cute heritage breeds that the Livestock Conservancy was showcasing (pigs, goats, sheep, cows, and a pony, all indoors!). 

Over the weekend, between the two of us, Zach and I learned about growing elderberries for health and profit, beekeeping basics, craft distilling, basic hydroponic veggie growing, building a pizza oven and a rocket mass heater from mud, dehydrating tricks, greywater basics, small-farm planning, solar greenhouse design, straw-bale gardening with mushrooms on the sides, a vision for a world in which fungi play a central role, and the steps processing a chicken from clucking bird to chicken dinner. Last night on our drive home, my brain was so full of information that I was almost nonfunctional, and it’s going to take me days to sort out everything I absorbed. Fortunately, I took lots of notes!

Although a lot of the classes were really interesting, our favorite class, hands-down, was Tradd Cotter’s workshop titled, “Mycotopia 2017: Medicinal mushrooms, magical molds, and magnificent mycorrhizae.” We weren’t even planning to go at first (the title made my head spin and I assumed he’d just be talking about how shittake is good for your health), but when we listened to Cotter co-host the straw-bale gardening workshop, we realized that he was an amazing speaker and we had to see him again. 

Cotter told us that “Mycotopia” is his dream city of the future in which mushrooms and fungi are used to their full potential. Using this whimsical framework, he discussed all the many different ways that fungi could be incorporated into the modern world. I had always thought of mushrooms as something to put on pizza (and then pick off because they’re too slimy), but Cotter’s lecture blew my mind open. He discussed possibilities for quicker and more effective composting, feeding third-world countries (he’s done extensive work in Haiti, teaching people how to grow mushrooms on old cardboard), providing disaster relief (again, mushrooms are a great source of protein that grow on trash!), filtering toxins out of water and soil, cultivating the cordyceps fungus to target pests, developing personalized antibiotics, making ink and rubber, creating self-healing building bricks, and even providing easy food on space stations. His enthusiasm and vision (not to mention his extensive research over the past twenty years) fired our imaginations, and I can confidently say that our “bacteria pet” collection is soon going to expand to the kingdom of fungi! (We also bought his book, which I would tell you about except that Zach has been reading it nonstop since we got back to Portland. It’s a good problem to have.)

In short, the fair was everything I hoped it would be: inspiring, thought-provoking, dizzyingly packed, helpful, encouraging, exhausting, and just plain fun. I’m so happy we got the chance to visit, and look deeper into what it means to be urban homesteaders in the modern world.


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Grand Gallivant: Return to the PCT

Ever since Zach and I left the PCT in September of 2014, we’ve wanted to return— not to hike, but to volunteer. A significant portion of the trail is maintained by volunteer crews, and we didn’t get a chance to join one, until this year.

After filling out the volunteer applications and convincing Gary to sign up as well, we chose a weekend trip at Nannie Ridge, which is close to the Goat Rocks in central Washington. We weren’t sure exactly what to expect, but got our gear ready and headed out last Thursday with high hopes.

The meeting place was the Walupt Lake Campground, which turned out to be a cool destination in its own right. It was a long winding dirt road to get up to the National Forest campground, but the cold lake surrounded by sweeping mountains was well worth it. We waded in the lake a bit, then got to camp for free next to the campground host. We met our crew leader that night, Haley: small and dark-haired with a quiet smile, she instantly struck me as one of the most laid-back people I’d ever met. Two other volunteers also arrived that night: Bart and Susie, a couple from southern Oregon who had done a bit of trail work before. We toasted marshmallows over a fire and chatted, excited to hike into the wilderness and start work tomorrow.

Walupt Lake

The next morning, we woke up early and got the group together as the stragglers arrived. Our crew consisted of eight volunteers and one leader: Zach, Gary, me, Haley, and Bart and Susie; a guy named Ben who was traveling around on his motorcycle with only one backpack to hold all his possessions (which he carried on his back while he rode); and a couple from Chicago (but before that, Romania) named Marinas and Anna.

We learned that we wouldn’t actually be working on the PCT itself, but an access trail called Nannie Ridge. It was important to maintain this trail so later horse crews could get up to the PCT to work on the Goat Rocks.

We hiked the three miles up to our group campsite, which was grueling because our packs were heavy with water. On the way up, we saw the part of the trail we’d be working on: it was deeply trenched in some areas, ankle-turningly rocky in others, and generally eroded all over. Our work was cut out for us!

The pavilion and kitchen tent
Once we hauled ourselves up one last slope and turned off to an alpine meadow, we learned that a horse-supported backpacking trip is the best thing ever. Tucked in between the spruces and purple lupine flowers, we found supplies cached for us: a dozen digging tools, a mesh-enclosed pavilion, a shade tarp, tons of cooking gear, several bear boxes filled with all kinds of food (the boxes folded out into shelving), and even a cooler of fresh vegetables! 

We scattered across the meadow, setting up our individual camps. Zach and I pitched our tent in a stand of pines on a little knoll, then helped get the kitchen area up and running. Bart and Susie dug a hole for dishwater, and a trench on the far side of the meadow for a latrine. Zach and I shoveled snow from a small snowfield on the edge of the area into garbage cans, to melt into drinking water since there was no other source of water here. After an hour of setting up, we ate some PB&J sandwiches, and prepared to actually start the trail work.

Haley walked us through the tools, most of which I had never seen before— the McCloud, the hazel hoe, the rogue hoe (my favorite)— and then we each grabbed a couple tools and started down the trail. 

Most of the work consisted of knocking down berms that had formed, either on the edges of the trail (preventing water from running off), or in the middle between two trails (forming trenches on both sides). We grabbed the heavy tools and knocked out the sod, evening out the ground so that it gently sloped to the outside edge. If that wasn’t possible, we dug some swales to catch the water and direct it off the trail via a trench, although we had to make the slope gradual enough so that people and horses could easily walk over it. As we worked, we had to consider different factors: rainwater, stock with saddlebags, hikers who naturally take the path of least resistance. 

After an hour or two of constantly bugging Haley about what needed to be done, we all began to fall into the rhythm and understand our work more intuitively. With nine of us working, we could fill in a trench in no time, and the trail was unrecognizably smooth and wide by the end of our first day. We hiked back up to camp, oohing and ahhing over everybody’s work. Haley made us a veggie stir-fry with rice and homemade peanut sauce, which tasted amazing after even just a few hours of hard work.

It turns out that the melted-snow situation didn’t work as well as it could’ve: the water was full of silt, which clogged the communal filter. We ended up having a big “filter party” where several of us sat around using our personal filters, as well as helping to strain the water through a towel so Haley could boil it. This is the kind of stuff that makes you really grateful for running water!

Zach, Ben, Gary, and Haley at our Filter Party. I love how ridiculously photogenic everyone looks here.

On Saturday, we worked a full eight hours: tearing down berms, grading the trail, fixing switchbacks, clipping vegetation, installing “water bars” (logs that direct the water off-trail) and even digging out and moving a huge boulder that sat in the middle of the trail. By the end of the day, the tendons in my hands were swollen and throbbing, and I was covered in mosquito bites and dust. We limped back to camp, where Haley and Ben worked together to whip up spaghetti with veggie-packed sauce and sausages. I hadn’t tasted anything so good since the PCT! We made a fire that night and burned our paper trash (including our dirty toilet paper, which inspired a lot of goofy joking), and we all chatted about random stuff. Marinas had hiked the Appalachian Trail, Ben had hiked both the AT and the PCT, and the others had done various shorter trips, so there were plenty of trail stories to go around. 

On Sunday, I woke up feeling refreshed, and we easily finished our morning’s work. Haley had announced we’d have the afternoon off to do hiking, and Zach and I knew exactly where we wanted to go: we wanted to hike up the last couple miles and find ourselves on the actual PCT. 

A five-minute hike from our campsite brought us to this view of Mt. Adams

We set out with Gary a little after noon, hiking over the top of the mountain we were on and heading north toward Sheep Lake. The sun was hot, and we were all sweaty by the time we reached the clear blue body of water. Zach hates cold water, but Gary and I decided that swimming was an order, and waded in. The water felt freezing at first, but once you got in up to your neck, it felt like you were floating in air. I paddled around, feeling some of the dirt wash off my skin. After so much dusty trail work, it was incredible!

After splashing around for a bit, we rejoined Zach on shore, and Gary opted to stay behind while Zach and I hiked onward toward the PCT. Within a few minutes, we saw the familiar wooden sign— PACIFIC CREST TRAIL NO. 2000— and set foot on the trail for the first time in almost three years.

I was home.

Even though I didn’t recognize this particular part of the trail, even though it would be a mile or so before anything looked familiar, I immediately felt the weight of returning to this path that had been my home for five months, and I nearly teared up. It was good to be back.

We trekked along the path, heading north through some woods, past alpine bogs and meadows filled with wildflowers, and out onto open slopes with views of Mount Adams and St. Helens. A jagged volcanic ridge rose up before us, the first of the Goat Rocks, painted with glacier, and at last I recognized where we were.

Haley caught up with us at Yakima Pass, and the three of us hiked together, chatting about her life as a trail worker and talking about what the area had looked like last time we had been through. Now, in high summer, it was still spotted with snowfields and banks that we had to scramble over. One section, that had been a barren slope of gravel when we crossed it, was now covered in a blanket of heather. 

We reached Cispus Pass, looking down into a valley that I clearly remembered. We hiked for a while, then sat by the trail with Haley, talking about this and that. But the sunlight wouldn’t last forever, and we had to return to camp. We waved goodbye to the valley and headed back.

As we walked, Haley pointed out the different wildflowers growing along the trail: dwarf mountain lupine, red columbine, Menzies larkspur, tiger lily, Indian paintbrush, beargrass, bunchberry, western pasqueflower. We even stopped at an alpine bog and she showed us exotic flowers such as elephant’s head, monk’s hood, and a couple different kinds of orchids. (Check out this page for pictures of the different flowers.)

Sunday was the last night with everyone, since Bart, Susie, Marinas, and Anna were heading out early in the morning, but we sat around the paper trash/toilet paper fire and had one last good talk. 

Group photo our final morning (minus those who left early)

On Monday, we packed up our personal camp, stashed the remaining food and supplies for next week’s trail crew, and hiked halfway down the mountain to do a bit more trail work. After a couple hours, Haley announced we were officially finished, and we cached the tools and hiked the remaining distance back to the campground. We said goodbye to Haley and Ben, grateful for the chance to get to know them. Then we took to the road, heading back to the world of flush toilets, instantaneous water, and wonderful, wonderful showers.


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Grand Gallivant: Fruit, Kayaking, and Old Friends

Playing a piano painted like a raccoon that sits outside the visitors center at Powell Butte Nature Area. Because of course.

The past couple weeks have mostly consisted of downtime. We’ve taken a lot of walks and hikes, finished the Tour de France (congrats Chris Froome!), and spent a lot of our days just hanging out with family and each other. Sometimes I feel guilty for how much time we’re taking off, but I also remind myself that spending time with family is important (I feel like this is the topic of a whole other blog post). 

Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Powell Butte again
It's just so cute...
Welcome to the Rose Garden!
Walking along the Columbia River

In the meantime, the notable highlights include day trips around the Portland area: we’ve made time to visit Sauvie Island and the “Fruit Loop” near Hood River, where u-pick options abound. We picked twelve pints of raspberries and blueberries one day, and a huge mess of regina cherries another. I love fruit!

One day we went on a family excursion (Zach, me, Gary, Ivy, Heather, and long-time family friend Shannon) to the Columbia Gorge, where we ate delicious pizza and ended up renting kayaks. I was a bit nervous going out on such a huge river, but we made it safely to a little island, picked wild blackberries that were juicy and sun-warmed, and floated back without incident, despite a fierce wind.

Last Friday, Zach and I took a day trip to Seaside, Oregon, to visit a couple who I had met on my very first solo trip, eight years ago. Kim and Steve met me at a hostel on San Juan Island when I was 20, and fed me delicious dinners, drove me to different destinations on the island, and generally made me feel at home. It was great to see their house in Seaside, and we picked up right where they left off. They drove us up to Astoria, where we explored the remains of a WWII fort, ate lunch at a brewery that’s inside the old Bumblebee Tuna cannery (lots of cool old equipment), visited the Astoria Column (a tower with a spiral staircase inside that gives you an amazing 360 view of the land and sea around you), walked along the beach in Seaside watching the sand fiddlers (mole crabs), and ate shrimp and potato salad for dinner. I’m so happy we got to reconnect with Kim and Steve, courtesy of the magic of staying in touch with Facebook! Zach and I drove home in high spirits, blasting Jonathan Coulton’s new album Solid State all the way (I don't think it's as good as Artificial Heart, but I love the high-concept story behind it and several of the songs are excellent). 

Inside the old cannery
View from the Astoria Column

Now today we’re in a flurry of packing— tomorrow afternoon we’re heading toward Walupt Lake, Washington for a weekend of volunteering on the Pacific Crest Trail. We’ve been wanting to do this for years, and I’m so excited to lend a hand to help out the trail that has given us so much. I’ll let you know how it goes!


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Grand Gallivant: Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

Last week was apparently the week of rainforests. A few days after our return from Olympic National Park, we (Gary, Zach and I) decided to take a day hike at Silver Falls State Park, which turns out is classified as a rainforest, just like Olympic. Who knew?

Silver Falls is about an hour and a half drive from Portland, at the end of a tangle of winding backroads that led us through countryside that actually reminded me a lot of Missouri, just with more blueberry/marionberry stands. We pulled up at the South Falls trailhead late morning— it’s a $5 day use fee to park anywhere, and this trailhead has a cafe and bathrooms. We planned to piece together a loop called The Trail of Ten Falls, although it ended up being the Trail of Nine Falls because we skipped one of the spur trails. The loop was about seven miles long, which we hiked clockwise.

See the people for scale

If you live in the Portland area, I can’t recommend this trail highly enough as a day trip. The forest is as gorgeous as you expect any Oregon forest to be, the waterfalls are beautiful and the volcanic rock formations— whether the black-rocked stream bottoms or the huge overhanging caverns— took my breath away. The trail is easy and has lots of shortcut loops, and offers both scenic views and behind-the-falls perspectives. Rainforests are cool!


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Grand Gallivant: Enchanted Valley, Olympic NP

Standing at the roots of a fallen tree

After a few days of hanging out in Portland, on July 13th it was time to take to the road again, and this time, Gary, Zach and I were headed to Olympic National Park for a couple days of backpacking! Although we’ve camped a lot on this trip, we haven’t backpacked at all since our Katy Trail trip last year, so getting our gear and food in order took a while. But at last we were off, heading toward the Olympic peninsula and its legendary temperate rain forests that I’ve wanted to visit since I first heard of them years ago.

Three hours later, we checked in to the Quinault Ranger Station to get backcountry permits and rent bear canisters ($32 for Zach and me for three days). It was another hour drive up a dusty road to our destination, with the Quinault River shimmering on our left, and a dense thicket of ferns and conifers on our right. I later learned that the whole valley is classified as rainforest, although in the dry summer weather it just looked like a larger-than-life version of all Pacific Northwest forests. 

The trailhead for Enchanted Valley was stuffed, but once we crossed a high wooden bridge to the actual trail, the people thinned out and we walked mostly alone. The path rose and fell steadily, allowing us plenty of energy to take in the surroundings. As I said, the rainforest wasn’t too different from any of the mossy forests you see around the area— big-leafed maples spattered between stands of spruce, pine, and cedar, with every branch and trunk carpeted in moss with sprouting ferns; banana slugs oozing across the trail; a blanket of ferns and sorrel on the damp earth; huge rotting “nurse logs” that provide the perfect potting soil for new trees— but in this place, everything was on an epic scale. Some of the trees rivaled the redwoods for girth, and towered so far over our heads that with my backpack on, I sometimes couldn’t crane my neck far enough to see the tops. The air was cool and damp, and the chatter of the Quinault River accompanied us as we hiked up and away from its banks, then back down toward it. It thundered through a slot canyon and galloped over wide pebbly bottomlands, glimmering blue with glacial melt.

I had never seen a maple so big!

We had gotten a late start, so it wasn’t a stretch to stop at the O’Neil River backcountry campground that night, 6.6 miles in. It was packed with people, but we found a nice couple of women who let us camp next to them in a little nook away from the river. Mosquitoes swarmed around us, and we huddled in the smoke of our neighbors’ campfire, chatting. 

I felt exhausted that night, and would’ve gone right to sleep, but as I was doing so, I felt a wave of queasiness. Soon it turned into a full-blown stomach flu of some sort, complete with cramps, chills, uncontrollable trembling, nausea, and diarrhea (fortunately the campground had a small and very smelly pit toilet. I spent some quality time there). Lying in the tent during a lull in the nausea, I stared up at the stars and tried to soothe myself. It could be worse, it definitely could be worse... 

After several hours of fitful napping, I finally got to sleep as the stars were starting to fade. Surprisingly, I woke up a few hours later feeling reasonably fine, aside from not wanting to eat anything. I still don’t know what that was all about.

We didn’t start hiking until almost noon our second day, since we only had 6.5 miles to go. I had thought this would be a breeze, but my period had begun the day before, and today it hit me in earnest. The miles were easy, meandering through both rainforest and a kind of savannah spotted with maples, but it was all I could do to walk them. At last we crossed the narrow one-railing bridge that spanned high across the river (I inched my way across, muttering soothing phrases to myself the whole way), and found ourselves at last in Enchanted Valley.

The view from our tent.

This valley definitely lives up to its name: a wall of gray mountains rose up to our left, a jagged snow-dotted ridge probably a thousand feet above, with glacial waterfalls trickling down between the firs. The glassy river rambled down from the fold in the hills ahead, where we glimpsed a snowy peak between the gray wall to our left and the pine-covered hills to our right. Although more than a dozen people were camping here tonight, the valley was wide and open, with lots of campsites scattered among the grass. We set up in a flat spot looking straight toward one of the distant waterfalls. Exhausted and cramping, I collapsed on my sleeping pad and didn’t get up for a while.

That night, after some tuna wraps for dinner, I crawled into the tent at 8:00 and went right to sleep. I woke up later, when the stars were out in full force, and laid awake with cramps for probably an hour. Despite the discomfort, I loved watching the stars— you could see the Milky Way even through the mesh, and I watched Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) wheel slowly behind the ridge of mountains.

The next morning, we woke up early (the sun had barely touched the ridge in front of us), packed up in the dew, and headed back toward the trailhead. I was feeling a bit better today (although still pretty sore), and the miles flew by under our feet as we hiked back through the gorgeous scenery. Six hours later we rolled up to our car, and started back toward the blessings of civilization.

Long story short? The Enchanted Valley hike was an incredible cross-section of the rainforest ecosystem. It’s a great, easy trail with a lot of rewarding views, especially at Enchanted Valley. I sincerely wish that the timing had been better so I could’ve enjoyed it more, but even so, it was well worth the effort.

If you decide to hike Enchanted Valley, I’d suggest not camping at O’Neil Creek, but at one of the many random sites scattered along the river (you won’t get access to a pit toilet, but unless you get stomach flu, you’re better off digging a cathole anyway). But definitely plan to camp at Enchanted Valley— it’s one of the most scenic places I’ve ever pitched a tent.