Monthly Archives: September 2013
This is Vanifest, my beloved year 2000 Dodge Ram Van 3500. When you live in a van it must be named. Vanifest is the longest model of Dodge Ram Van (19 feet) and had been converted to 4×4 before I purchased it. It also has a 3 inch lift. It’s big and creepy, and it keeps people away when I’m parked at night. I have only been approached twice while boondocking in my van, and I’ve been sleeping in random places since 2010.
When I bought Vanifest, I wanted to create a rolling, off the grid cabin. I designed a solar power system and picked out all the components online. I then had a local shop install the components since I don’t have the skills to tackle an electrical project like this (although I hear it’s not that difficult). Below are the components I chose.
130 watt solar panel. This panel is designed for a house, but it also easily attaches to the van roof. It was a good price for the large amount of wattage it provided and that was why I chose it over a specialized vehicle solar panel which tend to be smaller and more expensive. Click on the photo at right to see the solar panel.
200 amp hour, sealed, agm battery. This battery is a beast and weighs over 100 pounds. I had a custom plywood box built for it to enclose it, but for smaller batteries plastic boxes are available. Once again, the plywood box was the cheaper solution. The plywood box is bolted to the floor under my bed and vented to the outside through a small, plastic vent. In the unlikely event the sealed battery offgasses, the gasses go outside through the vent and not into the sleeping area. I didn’t want to take any chances with this huge battery right under my bed.
2000 watt pure sine wave inverter. Being a computer geek, it was important to me to keep my electronics safe while plugged in. The pure sine wave is safer for electronics.
Battery isolator. This is a small box which goes under the hood of the Vanifest. It charges the battery from the van alternator when I’m driving.
The solar system is spectacular! I can power a 1500 watt appliance for about 5 minutes each day, such as the electric kettle at left which boils water in just a couple minutes. Boiled water is handy for coffee, soup mixes or rice noodles. It allows me to use my propane camp stove less. I also have plenty of power for smaller items like my laptop (and curling iron, blow dryer, haha) whenever I want. The amount of power available is highly variable based on the sun and amount of driving I do, but for my lifestyle it has worked out well. I like to spend time in sunny areas and tend to move around every couple days. I did a lot of calculations to decide how much power I needed, and I recommend you do the same. Then, get twice or four times the battery you think you need. There are two reasons for this.
Using up all the power in the battery will damage it over time. It’s best to just sip 50% of the power and only on rare occasions take it lower than 50%.
Sometimes you need more power than anticipated. Maybe the sun isn’t strong, or you haven’t done much driving lately to charge the battery from the alternator.
In addition to the solar power, I got a few items to make the van experience more comfortable. These items have made the van lifestyle so much better for me and I think most van dwellers would benefit greatly from these items.
Engel Refrigerator. This is a wonderful, tough 12 volt refrigerator which uses very little power. I have it hooked up to my sealed battery and it’s draw is so low I hardly even notice it. Click on the picture at right to see the Engel. Ice is expensive and so is ruined food, so I feel this expensive fridge was a good investment.
Thetford Portable Toilet. I don’t have any desire for the stress of searching for a bathroom early in the morning, hair rumpled, looking homeless. This porta potti is always ready when I need it, doesn’t smell at all when properly closed, is easy to empty in an outhouse and fits right under the sleeping platform.
Mr Heater Buddy Portable Propane Heater. Yes, you can sleep with this heater on but I usually just turn it on in the morning or evening when I relax in the van. It doesn’t use much propane and quickly warms the interior of the van. It has some neat safety features, too, like automatically shutting off if tipped or if the CO2 sensor detects that there is too much CO2 due to the heated area not being vented enough. I just crack a window open in my van and this has never been a problem.
Six Gallon Aquatainer. I went through some other inferior water containers before finding the perfect one. This one seals completely and doesn’t leak, is easy to pour from, and has a flat surface for food preparation. In my Dodge Ram Van, it’s easy to position the spout at the side door over the plastic step. This allows for easy water pouring while cooking or cleaning up.
After three years of heavy use, I can happily report that the van is perfect for me and makes my lifestyle pretty comfortable. I have power, heat, water, a refrigerator and a toilet. The van is a pretty self sufficient little home. I do rely on dump stations or outhouses to empty the toilet, faucets to refill the water, and propane to run the heater and camp stove. I only need to worry about these things once per week at most, and could go much longer if needed.
Now, to decorate the van and make it girly and comfortable. You can read about how I did that here.
The essential living components of the Vanifest, such as the solar panel, battery and accessories are covered in this previous post: How I Set Up My Van for Off the Grid Living and Working.
Now I will show what I did to decorate the interior and make it comfortable and pretty. I started with a fairly blank canvas when I bought Vanifest. The previous owner was a man and he hadn’t decorated Vanifest except for putting cool bumper stickers on the interior. He installed a great sleeping platform made of wood which is still in the van and now has a plush memory foam mattress on it with many girly accessories. Otherwise Vanifest was empty and ready for customization. First, I insulated the roof and covered it with two polka-dotted twin-sized flat bed sheets.
The roof was bare metal, and as soon as the sun would shine on it the metal became hot and the entire van started to heat up like an oven. The solution? Sheets of pink foam glued to the ceiling with a generous coating of liquid nails. All the supplies were purchased at Home Depot and the project was pretty inexpensive. The pink foam insulation made a surprising difference in the amount of heat radiating into the van when the sun would shine on the metal roof. It also helped a little bit with insulating from the cold.
The next step was to cover the foam with something that looked nice. Once the foam was tightly adhered to the ceiling, I pinned two twin sized bed sheets over it. I used upholstery pins which are curly and can be twisted so they really bite into the foam and help the sheet stay put. No longer was the inside of the van a big, green, metal shell. Now it had a nice upholstered ceiling which was easy to change whenever I wanted to redecorate in the future.
I definitely wanted a nice bed. I got a memory foam mattress and the finest sheets I could find on Overstock.com. I also got a high end down comforter from Overstock.com, and it’s very fluffy and warm. I got a designer duvet cover and matching shams. I also got four pillows. All around the bed are windows where I can see the sun come up and light streaming in. The sleeping area is soft and girly. It makes the van feel like home. I even found a 12 volt heated mattress pad, which is really delightful and even allows me to comfortably sleep in temperatures below zero. One February I boondocked near Arches National Park in southern Utah, and the temperatures dipped to -20. I cranked up my heating pad, slept with warm pajamas and a hat, and was pretty comfortable.
The other customizations in the van have changed over the years. At first, I wanted to bring a lot of stuff and needed a lot of drawers for storage. At that time I had two towers of plastic drawers from Wal-Mart and a small ottoman for storage. The photo at right is the first setup of the van in 2010. Clearly I didn’t have a boyfriend back then, because all my interior van customizations were crudely installed with zip ties and i-bolts. I would drill a hole through the floor of the van, install an i-bolt, and then attach things to it with zip ties. I gooped silicone caulk all over the bottom of the van where the i-bolts protuberated. Crude, yes, but everything stayed in place and didn’t fly around when I drove 4×4 roads. It was also pretty satisfying to design and customize the interior myself with minimal tools.
Over the years Vanifest evolved into a more social space. I wanted to invite friends into the van on chilly evenings and after a couple years of van travel, I became comfortable with the idea of less stuff. Here is the current setup of the van with only one tower of drawers and a small couch. The “couch” is actually an underbed drawer from Ikea with a lid that flips up for storage. A nice Home Depot employee took an interest in the project and cut some 2x4s and pieces of melamine to the perfect dimensions so I could finish and install the couch with only a drill, i-bolts and zip ties. Girly carpentry was at work once again. To top off the couch, a friend helped me create a pretty cushion for it. Now the van has a nice social space as well as plenty of storage!
The kitchen in the van includes an extensive selection of spices which are affixed to the door of the van in small glass jars attached with strong magnets. The photo at right shows the spice jars, and the little “chasing the sun” graphic is something I came up with for my 2 month long solo journey north to Alaska during summer. The further north I drove, the more sun I would get.
For cooking in the van, I use an electric water kettle, which runs off the solar powered electrical system. Also, my propane camp stove comes out when more complex dishes are created. Cooking in the wilderness is a lot fun, especially when I have a lot of time on my hands at a remote location. Raw salads are very convenient, and I also love making spring rolls, quesadillas, polenta, stir fry, and other fancy meals.
After many refinements, the current set up seems perfect and the the van is my favorite home of my entire life. I’ve spent all the previous years of my life in big, comfortable houses but Vanifest is better. It’s simple, pretty, comfortable and I can choose my location every day. I can open up my doors to any view I want and enjoy it as my home for as long as I want. Oceans, rivers, trees, mountains, lakes: the choice is mine. This is the best lifestyle I can imagine. Having a comfortable living space which is aesthetically pleasing, pleasurable and economical makes this a viable lifestyle.
After three years of living in my van full and part time as a single lady, I finally have someone to share this wonderful lifestyle with! Here is the story of how we met.
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I had grown a little tired of my solo hikes. I wanted to do something challenging and push my limits with other people around. I just feel more relaxed knowing there are others on the trail who can help if I have a problem. When I saw a “Heart and Lunger Hike” on the Anchorage Adventurers meetup website, I began planning my week around it.
“Harp Mt is about 5000 ft, the summit is 2600′ above the parking area. It is steep from the parking lot and less than 2 miles to the top. Prepare to walk and/or crawl to the top. If the wind is blowing it can be very strong up there.”
These “Heart and Lunger” hikes have been a tradition in Anchorage every Tuesday night since 2007. The extreme outdoor culture of Alaska ensures these grueling hikes would attract a dedicated following. I showed up for the hike and sure enough, 11 very cool Alaskans appeared at the bottom of the mountain. There was little small talk. It seemed that they were mostly there for the hike, not necessarily to make new friends. We started up the mountain.
I’m used to climbing peaks but these ultra-fit Alaskans left me in the dust in about 30 minutes. After the first 30 minutes, I only saw one man and his dog at certain points during the hike. The description of the hike was accurate. It went straight up the side of a beautiful mountain. Had the wind been blowing hard, I would have crawled to the summit. Conditions were calm and beautiful, so I just slowly picked my way up the steep, loose rock.At the summit, I examined the rocky, steep route along a ridge the others had already started down and saw their colorful shirts far in the distance. The route looked pretty difficult so I decided to descend the same way I came up, solo again. I felt OK about it. This trip has stretched my comfort limits over and over again for what I’m willing to tackle solo. When I got to the parking lot at the bottom after the hike, I found a couple people had waited to make sure I made it down. They were caring people, but were not about to slow the pace of their heart and lunger hike to wait for me.
After the challenging backpacking and peak bagging trip and this heart and lunger hike, I was pretty impressed with the Alaskans and their meetups.
I love meetups (www.meetup.com). I’ve been going for years and have even organized a few. A meetup involves signing up for an activity online and then sharing that activity with total strangers. In my experience, meetups attract friendly people with positive expectations. People who don’t like other people, or are paranoid about doing an activity with strangers won’t last long in a meetup group.I found a great meetup group in Alaska called the Anchorage Adventurers. The first meetup was very challenging and took place in a spectacular area I would have never found on my own. I was shocked these types of dangerous and grueling experiences would be open to me as a tourist, but these Alaskan meetupers quickly welcomed me into the fold and I was then hammered on three epic meetups with them.
My first meetup was a weekend backpacking and peak bagging trip in the Chugach Range near Anchorage. It looked like it may be beyond my abilities, but hey, it’s a meetup where strangers are welcome. How hard can it be? Also, it was the weekend of my birthday and I was travelling solo. I wanted to do something exciting for my birthday.
I showed up for the meetup on a Friday afternoon at the Glen Alps Trailhead, only 20 minutes from downtown Anchorage. Most of the meetupers had already backpacked to Hidden Lake, a beautiful, blue lake in a rocky bowl above tree line. The organizer and I backpacked in together, just the two of us. She was an extremely fit mountaineer and I hurried to keep up during the five mile hike into the lake. She nonchalantly pointed out a moose browsing on foliage right near the trail, and I was thankful I wasn’t doing this hike solo.
As soon as we got to the mountain lake, we stripped and took a quick dip in the cold water in the soft glow of the evening Alaska sun. I needed some convincing because the lake was very cold, but after the organizer convinced me to plunge into the water I felt like I had become more of a member of the group and less of an outsider as I emerged naked and shivering from this lake in their backyard playground. All of them lived in Anchorage and I was the only tourist.
I asked the organizer about the next day’s plans, and she pointed to several technical peaks around camp which required climbing skills and looked far above my ability level. The organizer just shrugged and said “if the goats can get there, so can we”, and she announced she would just solo the peaks if no one wanted to come along.
I asked if I could join four of the other meetupers on the trip, who planned to attempt a peak several miles away. It would be a long, grueling day but would not involve any exposed climbing. They said, sure!
We all set up tents and found a cooking and eating area on a hillside nearby. The Alaskans were pretty casual about bears and food. I started to feel my tourist bearanoia wearing off as they decided to just leave food in their old drybags (with small holes in them, even) right there on the side of the hill as they slept 100 yards away. One person just kept his food in his tent that night, and no one thought that was unusual. They talked about recent bear sightings at the lake just below us, but showed no signs of worry. There wasn’t a single bear canister in the group. I felt delighted to observe these Alaskans and kept silent about the food storage.
Sure enough, the next morning all the food was intact. We ate breakfast on the hillside as the organizer left to solo the peaks around camp, waving at us as her bright pink shirt got smaller and smaller as she quickly gained elevation.
The rest of us started out toward Williwaw Peak. We hiked off trail on slopes covered in tundra, which felt like a colorful sponge under my feet with reds, greens and golds intertwining into a dense, soft mat. This tundra was an amazing hiking surface as well as beautiful. Even 40 degree slopes were incredibly stable and every foot hold felt good as we went up a steep pass and over the other side to enter the valley which would lead to our peak.
At the top of the pass, five mountain sheep approached us timidly. They stood just 30 feet away and seemed to be making some kind of silent decision. We stood absolutely still as they galloped right around us, only 15 feet away. We stood together as a group, breathless with cameras clicking. Maybe we just happened to be at the pass at the time when they usually cross, around 11 am, and they didn’t care to have their schedule disrupted just because we decided to hike that day.
We went on to attempt the peak but no one made the summit. After hours of side hill hiking on the way to the peak in trail runners, my feet began to blister badly on one side. They were not used to this terrain. Another man in the group said his ankle was bothering him and the summit was still a very long way to go. We turned back and stopped to soak our feet and lounge on the soft tundra at a spectacular lake on the way back to camp.
We arrived in camp and enjoyed a leisurely dinner. The organizer returned with a big smile on her face, still bouncing with energy. The other two people from our peak bagging group still hadn’t arrived. As dark approached they stumbled back into camp. One was saying things that made no sense and the other was very sick and vomiting. We offered them food and water, but they stumbled to their tents to recover and neither one of them was seen for the rest of the evening.
I had never experienced such a challenging meetup, anywhere, anytime. This meetup group showcased Alaska outdoor culture at its finest, and I couldn’t wait for more.
The Harding Ice Field hike was high on my list. It’s a challenging, visually stunning, day hike in a popular tourist area. This is my favorite type of solo adventure. I love a challenging hike, but when I’m by myself and doing something difficult I feel more secure knowing other people are hiking the trail and can call 911 if I happen to break myself.
I started up the 8 mile round trip trail full of confidence due to all the people around. I wasn’t too worried about bears. Surely with all these hikers around the bears will give this area a wide berth. Not so…
I said hello to plenty of people on the trail as they passed me and I passed them. There were so many people around that I felt a little silly about my standard practice of calling out “Hello?” in a loud voice every few minutes so I don’t surprise an animal.
I fell into a confident rythym of quiet hiking and then it happened. I rounded a corner and right there in the middle of the trail was a medium sized black bear. He was only 30 feet away and suddenly my very worst fear about solo hiking in Alaska was staring me in the face. I had surprised a bear and now he was incredibly close and looking right at me. He could charge, attack, do nothing, and I had no idea what was going through his little bear brain. I was frozen with fear for several seconds.
I can still picture the bear’s cute little face in my mind’s eye with his humble and lazy expression. His fur was a very dark brown and he had light tan markings around his face. His body language told me he didn’t have an ounce of threat in him but my heart was still beating incredibly fast. I backed up around the corner, grasping my large canister of pepper spray, panting with fear. I waited a few moments and some hikers came up behind me. I told them what I had seen and their eyes got wide and they also grabbed their canisters of spray. I was so happy to have them there.
We called out “hello mister bear” and other silly phrases until we heard him crashing through the brush below. The trail was safe now. We proceeded. Now I was a mini-celebrity on the trail. Everyone wanted to know what the bear looked like, how he acted when he noticed me. How big was he? Black or Grizzly? Did he look aggressive? How close did you get to him? I have to admit, I was eating up the attention having been immersed in pretty much total solitude for several days beforehand. I started to hike with a group of brothers from Minnesota after they quizzed me about the bear. They were a great group with great energy and I immediately felt like part of the family. I wish they were facebookers so I could have kept in touch with them. At least I got a great photo of us at one of the lower viewpoints of Exit Glacier.
I greatly enjoyed their company. When we got to the steeper ascent above treeline I looked behind me to see them far behind, sitting down for a break. I kept going, solo again.
I wasn’t alone for long. I met an awesome couple from New York and we enjoyed the rest of the hike together. They were so cute. Her name was Lisa too, but her partner used her nickname, “monster”, so there was never any confusion. She used a big, nice camera to capture the visually stunning glacier and I had fun posing for some photos. She’s an artist and he’s an engineer for Google so we had a lot to talk about. We reached the very high point of the trail and gazed across the Harding Ice Field. This has to be one of the most amazing sites in Alaska that can be reached by foot in a day. The Harding Ice Field feeds several glaciers which continue to carve out the deep fiords of Kenai Fiords National Park. It all starts here at this enormous Ice Field, shimmering under beautiful blue skies with the occasional shadow of a cloud racing across its surface.
We admire harding Ice Field from the top of the trail, then started seeing a steep foot path down to the side of Exit glacier. I’m happy I can push the envelope on this steep, sketchy descent with the comfort and company of my new adventurous friends. We make our way down to a spot in front of the blue, grey and white striped ice and enjoy a lunch break there. It’s COLD right next to the glacier and we all find ourselves putting on the extra layers in our packs even though we were sweating on the ascent. We all agree this is the best hike yet in Alaska. Monster snaps at least 50 photos during the lunch break. We descend the trail with lively conversation, plenty of photo breaks and no bear sightings.
When we get to the parking lot, I give them the tour of my van and lifestyle. We hug, part ways, and I feel filled with the love of all the people I hiked with that day. I also treasure the bear sighting. It’s something I both dreaded and hoped for during my time in Alaska, and it felt just as exciting as I thought it would, especially from such a close range.
I go into the town of Seward and explore camping options. People are crowded into a waterside area in RVs and the view is gorgeous across the ocean to dramatic peaks, but there is no connection to nature here and all the obvious camp areas look full to capacity. I spend a couple hours in my van next to the water making dinner, checking email and facebooking pictures and then decide to use the campground shower.
I have two failed attempts at using the shower and after an eight mile hike with sweat, sunscreen and deet this is an incredibly disheartening event. First, I strip down and insert my quarters only to find out a couple of them are Canadian and the machine doesn’t accept them. No worries, I drive a few blocks to the gas station through heavy traffic to get more quarters. I return, strip again and insert the American quarters. The machine eats my quarters and the shower handle turns in all directions and doesn’t respond. The shower is broken. I wash my face in the bathroom sink and accept my fate as a dirtbag for the evening.
I am spent after the eight mile hike, the bear sighting, the manic energy of the busy town of Seward and the failed shower. I drive my van for a short distance and pull into a vacant lot which happens to have just enough greenery to shield me from the road. I feel grateful for this free spot so close to Seward and fall fast asleep in my van.
Alaskans love to scare each other with terrifying tales. I met many Alaskans during my visit in the summer of 2013, and there seemed to be a common thread among the more adventurous ones: the sharing of scary animal lore. During the summer of 2013, the following animal stories were circulating and I heard them over and over again:
Several Alaskans who were experienced with safe practices in bear areas went to a wilderness cabin. Immediately upon arrival, they were mauled to death by a grizzly bear.
A female teacher who was new to Alaska went out for a run. She was attacked and killed by a pack of wolves.
A cyclist near the Alaskan border was chased by a wolf for several miles while riding on a road. He was pedaling as fast as he could as the wolf followed close behind, biting at the pannier bags on the back of his bike. Cars passed him on the road but no one stopped. Perhaps people thought he was taking his dog out for a run. He was approaching a hill and started to panic, knowing he couldn’t possibly outpace the wolf on the hill. He swerved in front of a car to get their attention, and they finally stopped to help him escape from the wolf.
One attack was pretty absurd. A man was charged by a bear right near one of the trails I hiked in the Turnagain Arm area near Anchorage. During the few seconds it took for the bear to charge, the man was able to fire 13 rounds into the bear from a semi-automatic assault rifle. That encounter was still under investigation when I left Alaska. Who carries a semi-automatic assault rifle and has it handy enough to bust out in the few seconds it takes for a bear to charge? Only in Alaska.
The Alaskans liked saying “this place will kill you” with a laugh, but there was a hint of truth there. Even the beaches around Anchorage consisted of mudflats that could turn to quicksand without warning. Signs strongly cautioned to avoid walking on the beach and each year the quicksand claimed a tourist or two. I came up with a new phrase the Alaskans loved: “in Anchorage, even the beach will kill you”. If you hear this phrase around Anchorage, it came from me.
Maybe they warn us and scare us because so many people have underestimated Alaska and been smacked down. An Alaskan told me a story about a man who rented a raft, loaded his family in it and then took it down a raging, expert portion of a whitewater river. They barely survived, and when the man was questioned about why he would do such a thing, he said “there was no warning sign next to the river.” With people doing things like this, no wonder the Alaskans go a little overboard with scary tales about what could happen if we get careless.
Or maybe it’s because most Alaskans who have spent time in the wilderness have also found themselves in life threatening circumstances and lived to tell the tale. I met an Alaskan who had fallen through the ice on the Yukon River and it sounded terrifying. He remembers being deeply submerged in icy water and looking up at a small spot of light where he broke through the ice. He admits he was lucky to have survived this.
This place will kill you, and the Alaskans are telling us this because Alaska has nearly killed some of them, too.
I stayed injury free during my last 8 years of technical canyoneering. Then, I sprained my ankle in Cypress Canyon in Vancouver, British Columbia. It put a damper on my adventures for a couple weeks. I took supplements, iced my ankle, rested it, and prepared it for my next canyoneering and backpacking trip. This trip was only three weeks after the injury, and sprains typically take 4-6 weeks to heal. I was really pushing it, but once I was able to balance on my injured ankle I decided it was ready for canyoneering. I still felt some pain when I bent my ankle at certain angles, but it was mild and I felt I wouldn’t hurt it more by taking it through some technical canyons.
It probably wasn’t the smartest idea to begin canyoneering so soon after the sprain, but I really wanted to attend Mossfest. Mossfest is a Labor Day canyoneering fest in Vancouver, British Columbia. Ironically, this fest would come to be jokingly known as “ankle-fest”. Two other canyoneers at Mossfest fractured their ankles and had to limp out of the canyon in pain. Both times I happened to be wearing an ankle brace from my previous sprain and was able to take it off and give it to my injured partners so they could wear it as they exited the canyon.
Also, I really wanted to do a 50 mile coastal backpacking trip with Brian after Mossfest. We planned to hike the West Coast Trail, a fantastic route through coastal rainforest and along beautiful beaches. I wasn’t sure my ankle could handle it, though. Then, on day two of Mossfest, I discovered ibuprofen. Having never been injured, I had no idea how effective it could be. I descended Cypress Canyon (the canyon where I originally sprained my ankle) with the help of ibuprofen and had a great day of canyoneering with very little pain. After that, I decided I could get through the West Coast Trail with my injured ankle. No problem. I would just bring plenty of extra strength ibuprofen.
I now know this wasn’t very smart, but Brian and I were still able to complete the entire 50 mile trail in only 5 days. The average time to complete the trail is 6-7 days. The West Coast Trail is a serious undertaking. Only about a third of it is easy beach walking. The rest involves boulder hopping on slippery rocks, crossing rivers and gorges in small cable cars, hiking up and down steep hills where the mud can be knee deep, and traversing rotten boardwalks that can give way at any moment. There are also 50+ ladders to climb, some of them very long and steep with plenty of exposure and an occasional missing rung. This is a trail for adventurers only, not an easy coastal stroll. If you’re going to attempt something like this when you’re injured, which I wouldn’t recommend, you had better bring along a few things:
1. Plenty of ibuprofen and maybe some Vicodin for backup in case the pain gets a little too epic. I didn’t resort to taking the Vicodin but at least it was there if I really needed it.
2. A good attitude, because there will be pain, no matter how many pills you eat.
3. An ultralight pack to minimize the effects of the hike.
4. A super strong adventure partner, and one with a big heart, because you will certainly need a lot of support to complete a big adventure while sporting an injury.
Luckily, I had all of these things as I made my way down the trail wearing my ankle brace and a pack weighing only 20 pounds. Brian’s pack weighed about 25, until a couple hours into the first day of the hike when he saw me wincing as I pulled my injured ankle over a log. He offered to carry all of our food at that point. The second day, after 10 hours of technical hiking on muddy trails and climbing about 50 ladders while favoring my ankle, I told him I was very tired. He took the tent and my sleeping pad. On the third day, my injured ankle was very sore.
My good leg was also sore because it had done all the hard moves the day before. Every time there was a ladder to climb or a big step over mud my good leg did the work while my injured ankle followed uselessly behind. I also had a blister forming from wearing wet 5.10 canyoneers for three days. These boots have tremendous traction in slippery conditions, plus they were the only reasonable hiking boot I had in my van at the time. However, once they got wet and I hiked 10+ hours in them, blisters were inevitable. Brian looked back at me hiking in the mud with my injured ankle and blistered feet and saw me struggling. At that point he offered to carry my entire pack.
He continued to carry my pack for most of the remainder of the trail, about 25 miles. My heavy, wet canyoneering shoes swung back and forth on the back of the packs as Brian moved down the trail. He carried both packs up and down tall ladders, through muddy bogs, across slippery logs and over rotten boardwalks. He did it with a smile on his face and every time I thanked him he would just say “really, it’s no problem at all”, or “it’s OK, I want you to enjoy the hike”. I walked along with only my trekking poles, nearly pain free on a gorgeous trail through the rainforest and next to the ocean. Everyone stared at us and made comments like “well, you’re packing light”, or “he’s doing double duty”.
The boat operator in the middle of the trail, Carl, said it had been 20 years since he’d seen someone carrying two packs on this very difficult, rugged route. We had a great time with Carl, exchanging jokes and enjoying a fresh crab, which cost $25 and was worth it’s weight in gold in the middle of a 5 day backpack trip. While sharing the most delicious crab I’ve ever eaten, Brian and I met Kamran, a solo hiker from Vancouver who almost died on the West Coast Trail on day 2. Kamran decided to leap across an 8 foot wide surge channel instead of taking the trail up and around it. A surge channel is a deep cut in the rock next to the ocean where the surge churns in and out. These surge channels are very difficult to escape, as Kamran discovered. First, before jumping, he threw his pack across the channel. The pack didn’t make it and fell into the channel. Kamran jumped in after it and was tossed around for several minutes in the surge. He thought it was his time to die, but then he somehow found just one foothold which allowed him to get up above the crashing water and climb out of the surge channel with his pack. Ironically, once he escaped the channel he was right back where he started and still had to use the trail around the channel. When I said paying $25 for the fresh crab seemed reasonable since backpacking is an inexpensive sport, Kamran heartily disagreed. He had ruined both a camera and cell phone in the surge channel incident. Thankfully, we saw Kamran at the end of the hike. He was still alive and seemed to have enjoyed the hike overall, except for the almost dying part.
On one beach, several people asked Brian questions about the direction of the trail and which route to take. They must have thought he looked very knowledgeable since he was wearing two packs and appeared to be guiding me along the West Coast Trail like some sort of sherpa.
During a couple days we found miles of technical hiking through bogs of mud. I started thinking of the mud bogs as “mud-rapids”. They were like whitewater rapids because you needed to maneuver carefully to keep your feet from sinking into knee deep mud, and sometimes a slip in a mud rapid could mean big consequences. First, we would scout the mud rapid. Identify the holes. Start left, work right, jump onto a slippery log, hope you don’t slip off, cheer if you finish it without getting wet. These mud rapids were very challenging, both mentally and physically. We navigated them for hours and hours on day two, along with many high, exposed log traverses. I came up with a system for rating the “mud-rapids”:
Class 1 – Slippery but easily navigable mud
Class 2 – Some holes but easy to traverse around them
Class 3 – Many holes and many slippery logs and tree roots to utilize during the crossing
Class 4 – Requires maneuvering from side to side over logs, roots and rocks to make it through the mud rapid without a leg knee-deep in mud
Class 5 – Serious consequences if you slip during the mud crossing. Most of the class 5 mud-rapids involved decayed, mangy boardwalks with a big drop below them and some missing boards.
These boardwalks were the only way to cross and some of them were one shred away from falling apart, covered in slippery mud with plenty of exposure beneath them.
The mud-rapids were exciting and also very tiring with my injury. The ladders were well designed, and as long as the wood was in good condition I enjoyed the endless ladder climbing and descending. Some of the ladders were in sad shape, though, and you just had to hold your breath and hope the rotten rungs would hold you and your heavy pack as they creaked beneath your weight.
No wonder there are so many evacuations from the West Coast Trail. This is a serious hike.
There were also some very beautiful, relaxing sections where we got to enjoy easy strolls along sandy beaches with bald eagles soaring overhead. On day two we saw a grey whale feeding in a kelp bed just 40 feet from shore. The whale’s glossy, rounded body would surface every few minutes with a spray of air and then he would go back under water to feed more. We also saw two black bears foraging near the shore one evening. Brian found some fascinating live barnacles which had been washed ashore on a small log. They were Gooseneck barnacles, still alive, their necks waving and mouth parts reaching out for food, confused about their location.
These barnacles formed a colony on the log and then high tide washed them ashore. They were so lively and hungry that I wished I had something to feed them. I guess they would not have appreciated the M&Ms in my pack, since they feed chiefly on plankton.
Overall, it was a fantastic backpack trip, and we completed it on schedule and with plenty of enthusiasm. Reaching the end of the trail on schedule and feeling good felt like quite an accomplishment with Brian wearing two packs and me nursing my injured ankle and painful blisters throughout the second half of the trip. There is usually at least a little drama on a long wilderness adventure, and this trip was certainly no exception.
I have this habit of sleeping in my van on little side roads with great views. After three years of doing this, it finally got me in trouble. I like the quiet and solitude of these side roads. I feel safer in the middle of nowhere than I do at a campground or rest stop. I also have all I need in my van, so why would I seek out an outhouse and running water? My full sized memory foam mattress, porta potti and two 5 gallon water jugs meet my needs.
I also have this habit of driving whatever road I please and not thinking much about it. If it’s a road, I can drive it with my 2 feet of clearance and 10 ply tires. Even if it’s not a road, maybe I can still drive it. I guess I was a little overconfident about my van’s abilities. The Alaska wilderness tends to smack down those who are overconfident.
It was the evening of the summer solstice and I was driving the Top of the World road in the Yukon. The time was around 10 PM and the sky was still filled with soft, yellow, arctic light. The entire road follows a ridge line with layers of mountains on either side. Anywhere I camped would have had a great view. I started exploring the little roads branching off the Top of the World road. Some were slippery from the recent rain but I barely noticed. I just rolled around the back country, scouting for a supreme camp to celebrate the longest day of the year.
Then I saw a little tan ribbon sloping gently upward to a rounded green summit, taller than anything else around. This was my solstice camp. I have a policy of investing only a mile or two in a side road. If it doesn’t look promising by then, I turn around. At about mile 1 the road turned rough but was no problem for the van. I decided to keep going and turned a blind eye to the obstacles because the van was able to drive right over them. The ruts and rocks didn’t matter. I was headed for my solstice summit.
I encountered some mud that looked like nothing at all. It was a short patch of mud and it didn’t even look wet. It was the only place along the road where a bunch of small logs and steel mesh littered the side, though. Those must have been used for traction. This should have been my first clue this place had trapped a lot of people.
I was confident my van could do it. I slowly pressed on right into the middle of the mud patch. The front tires spun and wouldn’t get traction. No problem. I backed up, moved over a couple feet and tried a different spot. Moving to the right two feet sank my front passenger tire so deeply into a patch of gooey tundra mud that the van would no longer move at all. I could also see that with each press on the accelerator my front passenger tire was only sinking deeper into the goo.
The other three tires were on solid ground but it didn’t matter. With the one tire clutched in the mud I wasn’t going anywhere. I got out and started digging through the mud with a plastic cutting board. I didn’t even have a real shovel. The cutting board was sturdy and was pretty effective with its sharp corners. It must have been a ridiculous sight for any animals watching me from their hiding spots. Clouds of mosquitoes tried to bite through my special mesh shirt as I dug vigorously among the bright green tundra plants with my plastic cutting board at midnight.
I didn’t lose my composure, but I was afraid. Really afraid. I didn’t understand how this mud trapped me so quickly and so completely. It had looked like nothing at all. Were there other threats I just had no clue about, waiting to smack me down? My whole sense of confidence about the trip felt shaken.
I persevered with my plastic cutting board and freed my front passenger tire from its wet, muddy cocoon. I put branches under the tire and propped logs behind it, but the tire just spun helplessly no matter how much wood I placed around it. All I needed was a little push to get me onto the logs, and it would have been an easy downhill push at that. Now that the tire was dug out, all I needed was a push to get the tire moving while I pressed lightly on the gas. There was absolutely no way to hit the gas and push the van at the same time. That was the most frustrating part about this ordeal. I felt helpless. A small problem had suddenly become a crisis because I was alone. Why did I do this drive alone? Why, why, why?
Would anyone even come up this road tonight to help? The Top of the World road is already incredibly remote, and then I took a side road to get even more remote. What sort of person would show up and would they be helpful or creepy? Whoever showed up would find out I was by myself with no way to escape. I couldn’t let worry take over. I just had to trust that things would work out. A good person would help or give me a ride to cell service. I could pay money to retrieve my van, although as far as I was from services it was hard to imagine the bill I would incur for this.
At midnight the light was still streaming in the windows of the van. I needed to get some sleep. I put up my blackout curtains and tried to get comfortable on the bed with the van pitched toward the right. I propped myself up with several pillows and started to form a plan for finding help. It would be safer to ask for help during the day so I decided to stay here for a few more hours. If no one came by morning I would walk down to the Top of the World road around 10 am and try to flag down a big pickup truck. I would hope to find a burly truck capable of navigating this road, with a driver willing to help with a stranger’s muddy mess. I realized this was a lot to ask and I would need to find a person with a heart the size of the entire state of Alaska.
It was difficult to sleep because I felt the constant urge to get out and dig more to try to get free. It was hard to admit that I couldn’t do anymore to fix this. The more I spun the tires trying to get free, the lower the van sank. The front axle was already lightly touching the ground. I would only make things worse if I drove the axle into the mud.
I finally slept a bit and had euphoric dreams of rescue. I awoke and wondered if this was really happening. Yes, I was still sleeping on a severe incline in the middle of nowhere. It was really happening. Back to sleep. I heard dogs barking in the distance. Back to sleep.
Finally the restless night was over and I gathered my valuables in my backpack and began the “walk of shame” down to the Top of the World road. My tail was tucked and it was time to admit I underestimated the Alaska wilderness. Immediately I noticed fresh wolf tracks on the road and I remembered waking to the sound of dogs barking last night. I realized those were wolves and they probably traveled this road last night to investigate my van. I was completely on edge. I had to talk myself through the entire 30 minute walk to the road. Ok, 20 more minutes to go before I was at the road and near other people. OK, now only 5. Almost there. I tried to sing to calm my nerves. I recalled my plans to hike solo during my trip. How can I possibly hike solo in Alaska if this 30 minute walk inspires this much terror?
I reached the road and saw a truck pulling a fifth wheel camper. I didn’t even care it wasn’t the type of truck I envisioned for a rescue. I flagged them down and started rapidly describing the events and asked what they thought I should do next. I probably sounded like a crazy person. They said they would give me a ride to the border so I could call for help. These people represented safety, which I had craved for the last 12 hours. I didn’t want to hang out on the side of the road with the wolves until the right truck came along. I looked at the clean interior of their truck and kind faces. Everything I saw looked so very safe and comforting. I got in.
They were travelling with another couple. When we all met up a couple miles down the road I described the situation and showed them pictures of the stuck van. They said it didn’t look so bad. They started to look for tow straps and unhooked the truck from their trailer. It was a smaller truck but maybe it could navigate the road. If we could reach my van there was a good chance we could free it from the mud. I just felt ecstatic to have found someone who would even try at all.
We started up the road and the first mile went smoothly. When the small truck hit the first rough spots we got nervous and almost turned around. They said they had no idea why I would drive this terrible road by choice, why it even existed in the first place, and I needed to have my head examined. I heartily agreed with all statements. They pushed past the terrible obstacles on the road and we finally arrived at my trapped van.
We connected webbing from the front of their truck to the rear bumper of my van and I got behind the wheel to gently give it gas. With just a little tugging the tire was freed from its cauldron of mud and now my ecstasy could not be contained. I got out, saw I was free and started jumping up and down with happiness. Thank you! I yelled to them and threw my hands in the air with delight. I wasn’t stuck anymore and could drive out of here without paying for a rescue. Ecstasy.
I felt so grateful. I offered money but they refused, so I grabbed a copy of my Idaho Canyoneers book and wrote inside: “To my Top of the World angels, may you receive 10x the blessings you have bestowed upon me. Much love, Lisa.” What else could I have done to show my gratitude for the kindness of these strangers? Now, when they tell the story about the woman from Idaho they helped out of a jam, they have photographic evidence.
As I rolled down the road away from my angels, I felt so filled with gratitude I hoped I would have the opportunity to help someone else along this road. Usually helping someone is just an impulsive act when the need arises, but today I really wanted an opportunity to pass on the kindness I just received.
About 30 minutes later, I got my chance. I passed a group of bikers clustered around a motorcycle. I pulled over and saw they were working on a flat tire. The tire had been patched but the patch wasn’t holding. There’s nowhere to get a tire out here and the owner of the bike looked concerned. I happen to have a lot of supplies for fixing a tire and surely this big group of bikers will know how to use them.
I was excited to help and started grabbing my repair items. The first thing I produced from the van wouldn’t work on a motorcycle, but the second thing I produced was a true motorcycle tire repair kit. I’m not sure why I chose it several years ago at Walmart since I’ve never even owned a motorcycle, but it rode around in my van until the perfect moment arrived. I presented the kit to a very happy recipient, and after chatting with the group for about 10 minutes the tire was fixed and holding air! Now this new friend with the previously flat tire had the same light in his eyes that I had earlier. Maybe he felt the same swelling in his heart that comes from a total stranger seeing your distress and caring enough to solve your problem. He wanted to pay me for the kit but I said, “no, that’s ok”, and I told him what happened to me earlier that day. He was all smiles. He rode away on his bike and I rode away in my van.
What could have been the lesson in all this? We may try to be self-sufficient but some problems just cannot be solved alone. This realization up on the tundra in the mud shook me to the core, but it also forced me to trust in “people helping people”. This is probably the best thing to trust in, anyway, and it provides more protection than control and planning ever can. We’re never really in control of our own safety, anyway.