Thursday, September 25, 2014

Running Through Perimenopause

10 Reasons I'm Running Through Perimenopause

By Kathy Vaughan

1. The endorphin rush from running helps to counterbalance the hormonal fluctuations and accompanying moodiness.

2. Running helps to keep weight gain from estrogen fluctuations under control.

3. Running is a weight bearing activity and thus helps to build bone density, which decreases with age and decreasing levels of estrogen.

4. Post run bliss helps to increase libido during this time of hormonal changes when there can be a decreasing sex drive.

5. Being a runner helps me keep a positive sense of self worth, especially as an empty-nester.

6. Running helps me fall asleep more easily, sleep more soundly and fall back asleep again during the night after having awakened from night sweats.

7. It is important to stay well hydrated during times of heavy night sweating and women runners understand this concept and take the concept of hydration seriously.

8. Running with other women is a healthy way to process the changes and experiences of the perimenopausal years.

9. The meditative aspect of long, slow runs is helpful in creating a sense of balance, calm and introspection during this time of mood fluctuations.

10. Putting on flirty running skorts, brightly colored arm and leg sleeves, and sporty running shoes help me channel my inner girlieness.

     So, get out there and run ladies! It's the natural way to stay in balance while our bodies adjust to the fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone brought on by perimenopause.

graphic by Ras /

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Running the Rugged Terrain of Mt Rainier

Running the Rugged Terrain of Mt. Rainier:
Tackling the 2014 UPWC Mother Mountain/Northern Loop

photo by Kathy Vaughan/

By Kathy Vaughan

     Mowich Lake sits at over 5,000 feet with Mt. Rainier looming over it. It's a beautiful spot and it is accessed via a 21 mile washboard and pothole ridden dirt road. Lisa and I traveled up this final stretch of our road trip, anticipating what kind of camping scene we would find once we arrived in the dirt lot. I had been here many times before, but for Lisa, this would be her first. In the morning we would run the 44 mile Mother Mountain and Northern Loop figure eight, which has about 14,000 feet of elevation gain, and is one of the routes for the 2014 UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge. We were meeting Vivian Doorn here, a Seattle area ultra runner who had been wanting to join Lisa and I on one of our adventure runs. She would be camping at Mowich Lake tonight as well, and we would begin our run sometime around five AM, hitting the trail before first light to get an early start on the day.

     We pulled up at the lot and began walking towards the camping area to find Vivian. An older man in a park ranger's uniform stopped us. He had met Vivian and was keeping his eye out for us to let us know where she was camped. It had just gotten dark and she would have been hard to find in the crowded camping area. He escorted us to Vivian, where she was in discussion with a Wonderland Trail thru hiker about their various pieces of camping and hiking gear. Lisa and I thanked the volunteer ranger, I introduced Lisa and Vivian to each other and we all finished setting up our camping gear for the night. It was time to get a good night's rest before the long journey we would take up into the surrounding high country the following day.

photo by Vivian Doorn

     I spent a fitful night tossing and turning in my warm sleeping bag. I was comfortable enough. My mind just would not relax enough to allow me to sleep straight through until my four o'clock alarm would sound. Finally, I got up to use the bathroom so I would have a better chance of falling back into a sound sleep, which I was able to do until just before four. I got up and put on my running clothing that I had brought into the tent with me. I unzipped my tent and stepped out into the cold, dark of the morning. I walked to Lisa's truck and found that she was already there, setting up the stove so that we could have a cup of coffee before we hit the trail. She had also set out a tray of her muffins, homemade with zucchini from her garden. They were delicious and it tasted good to eat one with my cup of hot coffee. Lisa and I enjoy sharing our homemade vegan foods with each other when we do a long run or cross country ski trip together. I finished my preparations with my pack and put on my new Altra Lone Peak 2.0s. I was excited about trying these out for the day. They had great traction and I knew this would be a good thing on the rugged trails I was about to enjoy.

     I had been on both of these loops separately in the past, as well as the Wonderland Trail in it's entirety seven times. I knew these trails well and I knew it would be a difficult 44 miles. When we were all ready, we set off towards the trail head and decided that I would lead the pace. We turned on our watches and set our head lamp beams on high for the trail and off we went, three brave ladies taking off into the darkness.

     Two miles in, we became disoriented in Eagle's Roost camp and Vivian approached some back packers whose light we could see had come on in their tent. They directed us out of the camp and back onto the main trail where we set off again towards Spray Park, the first of the high alpine parks. Light in the sky began showing through the big trees as we climbed higher and higher on well trod, soft forested switchbacks. As full light entered the sky, we began climbing the first of the erosion steps and the trail became interspersed with muddy sections. We were now out of the forest and in the grass and flower strewn meadows of Spray Park. Many of the flowers had died off for the season, but avalanche lilies and bear grass blossoms were still in abundance. The meadow had a strong fragrance lingering in the damp morning air, one of old flower blossoms, pungent and telling of the September season of the mountain. 

photo by Lisa Eversgerd

     It was not long before I could see the rock and snow fields that lay ahead on the route. This was one of the reasons we had chosen to run the loop in this direction. We wanted to hit this area in the daylight, when our bodies and minds were fresh. We knew we might have some challenges here and we were about to discover what one of them would be. There was not really much lingering snow and the cairns made it easy to find our way. As the leader, I stepped cautiously onto the snow field, noticing that it was glistening in the morning sun. To me, this meant it might be icy. Being a skier, I knew what glistening snow meant. Sure enough, it was slick as could be and I was glad I had my trekking poles with me. I let the other ladies know that it was very slippery and to use caution. We made our way across this first field to an outcropping of rocks. We were able to stay on this rocky section for a while until we were forced to step out onto the slick snow once again. This time I had decided that I might sit and glissade across it if it seemed safe to do so, and after a hard fall onto my bottom, I did just that. It was fun and Lisa and Vivian decided to do the same. We all made it safely across the snow and now it was time to descend the rest of the rock field.

photo by Vivian Doorn

    I felt good, fresh and light on my feet as I continued to descend toward Seattle Park. There were so many miles in front of me and so much varying terrain to cover. For now, I was in the moment and enjoying the trail. It was time to descend some of the erosion steps through the park, working our way down to Cataract Valley Camp. This would be the seven mile mark, not really that far into the day's adventure. I was glad we had made it through the snow and rock field safely, though. The rest of the route would be easy to follow using the park signs and our map.

     We passed by the wooded camp and continued our descent to the Carbon River. We reached the river bottom and saw that the crossing would be over a suspension bridge that hung high above the river. I crossed first and then one at a time Lisa and Vivian followed. It was thrilling to look down and see the raging, chocolate milk colored river far below. I remember crossing this with my daughter Angela when she was seven, as backpackers, and it felt good to realize how far I'd come as a trail runner.

photo by Kathy Vaughan

     As is true for most routes in the Mt. Rainier area, a long descent was followed by a long climb. Now that we had crossed the river, it was time to climb up to Yellowstone Cliffs and Windy Gap, 2,400 feet above us. We settled into the climb and I thought of pleasant memories that would entertain my mind. It was hot in the forest, but the trail was in good condition for this five mile ascent. 

photo by Vivian Doorn

     Yellowstone Cliffs were magnificent in the sunlight, towering over Vivian, Lisa and I as we traversed the steep hillside below them.  The brush was dense and grew over the trail. I pushed my way through. I could feel some of my energy waning after the extended climb. Now the full heat of the day shown down on me on this exposed section below the cliffs as I tried to keep up a good pace through the brush. I felt ready to sit down for a few minutes and take a break. My water bottles were low and the other ladies were ready to fill theirs as well. We stopped at the next stream for our first water refill of the day.

photo by Kathy Vaughan

     Vivian had brought water drops to share around for sanitizing our water. She taught Lisa and I how to use them, as we normally use a Katadyn water filter bag. While the bottles are filling, we snack, rest and stretch. This method was new to me and took a little getting used to, but once I understood how it worked, it seemed like an efficient way to rid the water of dangerous bacteria. While stopped alongside the pleasant stream, two young guys ran up and we exchanged a few words about our routes for the day. They were doing the shorter of the two loops we were combining, 17 miles on the Mother Mountain Loop. We had the 27 mile Northern Loop in addition to the mileage they were tackling. They looked pretty tired already, but likely were pushing the pace a bit faster than we ladies were. They were carrying smaller packs than us.

photo by Kathy Vaughan

     We finished our water stop and continued making our way around the Northern Loop. There was a big descent ahead, dropping down to the crossing of the glacial White River. Much of this section was runnable, so I set an easy pace on the mostly forested trail. It was rooty and rocky in some sections, but the running was fun and cruisy. I enjoyed being able to run on this downhill terrain and get some miles done quickly. After the long descent, it was time to refill water bottles before beginning a long climb to the Firecreek Camp, Berkely Camp and finally Skyscraper Pass at about 6,000 feet.

photo by Vivian Doorn

     The views from here were spectacular. Looking back into the drainage from which we had just emerged, we could see the long, flat plateau of Grand Park. This is an unusual phenomenon in the Mt. Rainier National Park and the flat, grassy meadow stood out in stark contrast to the surrounding landscape of rugged peaks. 

photo by Vivian Doorn

     It was now early evening. We had reached a point in the loop where I was very familiar with the trail. We were now on the Wonderland Trail section of the route, a 94 mile loop I had completed seven times. I knew all the climbs, descents, river crossings and major intersections. We were about half way through the mileage and we were going to have a long night ahead of us. 

photo by Vivian Doorn

     The trail tread was nice and soft. I started running towards Granite Creek Camp, a two mile downhill run to one of my favorite camps on the Wonderland with a lovely creek running through it. I had fond memories of my family spending a rest day when Ras and I took Angela through here at seven years old. She played in the creek, explored the camp, and did anything but rest. The descent was easy. Two backpackers came climbing up the hill towards us and we soon realized they were coming from Eagle's Roost Camp. They were the two men Vivian had spoken to through their tent walls many hours and miles ago. They were impressed to see how far we had come since those dark hours and a little overwhelmed when they heard about how far away our final destination was.  

     They had about five miles to go before they would finish their hike at Sunrise. They had been trying to find a ranger on the trail so that they could change their camp for the night. Having not come across one on the trail, they had decided to just hike the rest of the way out to their car. They were excited about having a big meal when they were done. I answered a few questions they had about trail running and I told them transitioning from carrying a huge pack to lightening the load and changing to a slow running pace on the trail, was not difficult. I encouraged them to give it a try. Being from the Tri Cities in Washington, I let them know that the Badger Mountain100 Mile trail race took place in their neck of the woods in March and that maybe we would see them there. Vivian had finished that race earlier in the season and learning this their eyes got very big. We both went on our way and the young men's imaginations had new fuel for their final miles.

photo by Vivian Doorn

     The next big landmark for me was a special resting spot called Garada Falls. Here, Vivian, Lisa and I could refill our water and take a short break in a flat spot with logs for sitting. This was a spot well used by hikers over the years for this very purpose and again I was flooded with memories of family times spent at the falls. After passing Granite Creek Camp, the trail became more technical, dropping at a steeper rate and strewn with rocks and roots. At times, water ran over the trail causing it to be muddy and slippery. I navigated this section carefully and looked forward to the rest at the falls.

     The rest didn't happen. The falls were no longer there, or at least no longer visible. The water had changed course. A huge pile of logs was jammed up in the area instead, cuts from a saw proving that this had happened a couple of seasons ago. I couldn't believe my eyes. I was confused that it wasn't there. Dusk was nearing and I was feeling tired. I thought maybe this was not the section of trail I had thought it was. I kept pushing myself forward, wondering what had become of the spot along the trail I loved so much. The terminus of the Winthrop Glacier was to the left of the trail and the river was raging out it. The rock was tinted with red and orange, rich with iron. The snow and ice was filthy looking. The entire scene was very intense and loud. But there was no water fall gushing off the hillside and filling an idyllic trailside pool with cold, clear water.

photo by Vivian Doorn

     We crossed Winthrop Creek and began the trail section that meanders and winds through an old moraine field. I knew when we got to this point that the destroyed falls was behind us and not still ahead. The force of the mountain and the movement, however slow, of the glacier, had changed the course of the water creating Garada Falls. It simply no longer existed in the form that I had always known it. I had to let go of the idea of seeing the falls, showing it to the ladies and enjoying its cold waters.  

     After the moraine field, there was some rolling trail before hitting a second crossing of another fork of the glacial White River.  Now dark had fully set in. We had stopped along the trail to pull out our headlamps, but we would need to make an additional stop to refill out water bottles as soon as we came to a fresh water run off of the White River itself or came to another creek. We finally reached a spot we could access easily from the trail and began the process of combining drops for five minutes until they turned color, adding them to the fresh water in the bottles and then waiting fifteen minutes before drinking. As we did this, we put on our night layers. This was a cold spot and loud from the rushing creek. It was hard to talk to each other while we were here and watching what the other ladies was doing was key to being ready at the same time they were to our progress along the trail.

     I put on my down puffy pants and jacket because I was wet with sweat and the creekside stop in the dark was very cold. I wanted to stay warm. I did not take my coat off when we got moving again and thus I was overheated as soon as we began climbing towards Mystic Camp, our next destination. I got very sweaty and irritable, but continued on through the steeply situated camp and on to the lake, dimly lit by the moon. It was so pretty in here. I wished that the ladies could see what it looked like in the light of the day. We crossed boardwalks and little babbling brooks. The mountain towered over us to our left and other peaks guarded the lake to our right. We continued on, quietly.

     Climbing out of the basin where the lake was, the trail got steep and damp from the dew fall of the dark night. When we reached the pass at the top of this climb, we would begin descending through the magical Moraine Park, reaching Dick Creek Camp and finally the terminus of the Carbon Glacier. We would descend for miles until reaching the Carbon River crossing for the second time on this journey, following alongside it for several miles, and then begin the final climb through the Carbon River rainforest until reaching Ipsut Pass. We would slip through the pass and then follow the easy 1.5 mile trail to our finish at Mowich Lake Camp. The end was in sight, but still so far away.

     At the trail junction to the final climb toward Ipsut Pass, Lisa took over in the lead. I was feeling  empty, lacking energy, mentally drained and ready to have someone else take over in the front. I wanted to drop behind and eat a Clif bar, hoping to regain some energy for the final stretch. Lisa and I like to play games to keep our minds distracted in the night hours, when it gets hard, but Vivian had not been interested in playing a game. Luckily, I had brought along my mp3 player. I put one ear bud in and began to enjoy some lively raggae dancehall music for the final miles. This helped so much.  

     The three of us spread out on the trail quite a bit. It was easy to see the headlamps of the other ladies to keep track of each other, but we all needed our space now in order to settle into the final climb in whatever way we could get it done. Lisa took off pretty fast and created a big gap. I moved in the middle and Vivian dropped behind. At one point, I stopped and waited to make sure she was okay and snapped a shot of some cool mushrooms, glowing under the light of the moon. Vivian was fine and had strength left to make it to the end. I kept nibbling on my Clif bar and at one time had to call out to Lisa to see if she could share some of her water with me. She had enough to spare and I gulped down a huge sip, grateful for the cold liquid available to quench my strong thirst.

     The trail broke out of the rainforest and continued switchbacking towards the opening in the massive rock cliffs;  Ipsut Pass, our destination. The moon cast a glow over the brushy, rocky ascent. The wet brush soaked my down pants, keeping me cool as I climbed, yet just on the brink of becoming chilled. My body temperature fluctuated between feeling sweaty and cold and clammy. I couldn't wait to take these clothes off and put on my warm dry clothes that were waiting for me in the back of Lisa's truck. I didn't know if I would feel like heating up the vegan chili I had made for the end of the run to share with Lisa and Vivian, or I would just feel like going straight to my tent to lay down and fall asleep. I was definitely hungry, so much so that I felt a little queasy. I had depleted myself and had needed to focus on taking in more food throughout the entire day. This is an area of weakness of mine and I will work on improving this so that I can maintain a more even energy level throughout.

     The glow of Lisa's headlamp disappeared and I knew she had reached the pass. She would likely layer up and wait for us before making her way towards Mowich Lake. I kept switchbacking up into the darkness, through the wet brush, and surprised myself when I popped out at the pass after being confused as to just where it was. I was at a loss for words and simply said “Good job Lisa.” We waited for Vivian for just a couple of minutes. The hard work was over. Now we just had to cruise into camp.

     Our conversation became light and lively. We talked about how our bodies had held up, how had our running shoe of choice worked for us for the day, what changes might we have made, what should Lisa sign up for next (as she has never done a 100 miler and Vivian and I both felt like she was capable of completing this distance), and would we eat or just crash out once we got back to Mowich Lake. Soon, we saw the glow of the water through the trees as we got closer to the camp. The moonlight was shining on the lake's surface and making it visible enough for us all to get our bearings. I looked down at my watch and could see we would finish in 21 hours and some odd minutes. We had hoped for 20 hours, but I was still happy with 21:19 when I finally got to Lisa's truck where the dry warm clothes, food and coffee awaited. 

     I turned off my watch's timer and found a rock at the edge of the parking lot that I could lay against. Everything had shut down as soon as we stopped. The queasiness was overwhelming, every muscle in my body ached and I just wanted to lay in the dirt with a rock as my pillow, forever.

     Vivian said “Well, I guess I'm an UltraPedestrian now.” I loved hearing this. She was so proud of what she had done and she definitely had acquired UltraPedestrian status. She walked off to her tent to have a snack, change and sleep. Lisa finished up at her truck and headed back towards her tent as well. I finally rose from the ground and set up my camp chair behind Lisa's truck. I pulled out my Baker Lake duffel bag, which I had earned earlier in the summer after finishing my 5th Baker Lake trail run, and set it at my feet. From my running bin, I pulled out a heavy wool blanket and covered myself up as I began to peel off the clammy layers, sponge myself off and put on the delightfully dry and cozy clothes I had carefully chosen out at home to put on at this time. I took my time relaxing alone in the dark parking lot before shuffling back to my tent, my mind still racing with memories of a long, glorious day on trails around Mt. Rainier.

photo by Vivian Doorn

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Windy Peak Circumnavigation

Windy Peak Circumnavigation:
Rugged Trails In the Remote East Pasayten Wilderness

photo by Kathy Vaughan/

By Kathy Vaughan

     The dogs began to bark, letting me know that Lisa had arrived. She was right on time, although I had forgotten what time we had decided on in our phone conversation, several days prior. I was just about ready, but I had to make a cup of coffee for the road and grab my hummus and sandwich rolls to make up my trail food while on our two hour drive to the Long Swamp trail head.

     Lisa and I had a 31 mile run planned in the Horseshoe Basin area of the Pasayten Wilderness. We would start off by climbing to just below the summit of 8.300 foot Windy Peak, and then circumnavigate it. The route was a lollipop, meaning the trail taking us towards Windy Peak was about four miles, making up the stick of the lollipop. We would then travel in a clockwise direction around the mountain, returning to our lollipop stick that would take us back to Lisa's truck at the end of our run.

photo by Kathy Vaughan/

     I loaded my gear in Lisa's truck and we took off, hoping to be on the trail around 8 o'clock. The ride was scenic and pleasant. Lisa and I enjoyed catching up with each other, having not spent time together since our last run together, a 34 miler on the Kettle Crest Trail in the Colville National Forest, the end of June.

     We passed by the Similkameen river; numerous apple orchards; old homestead apricot trees, loaded with fruit; the Enloe Dam; Palmer Lake and a handsome herd of Big Horn Mountain sheep, grazing peacefully in the early morning sun. As we rode along, Lisa told me about how she had called the local ranger district for the most current trail information. She asked about each specific trail that would connect our loop together, making it a thru route and she was assured that downed trees had been cleared off of each of these trails.

photo by Kathy Vaughan/

     We purchased our $5.00 Northwest Recreation Pass, and readied our packs. The trail started out with a stiff climb towards the mountain, so we settled into it. We both were using Black Diamond trekking poles. I like using poles for more rugged adventures, when I know there will be lots of steep climbs and technical descents. I find them very helpful. Being a cross country skier, it comes naturally to me to use these with good technique.

photo by Lisa Eversgerd

     The wild flowers were abundant and fragrant. Fireweed was growing everywhere, prone to thriving in old burns, like the one through which we were now climbing. Lisa told me that before the flowers bloom, when they are young and tender, they are good for eating and taste similar to young fiddle head ferns. We also saw little Grouse worel berries growing, low to the ground. They were tiny and tasted like huckleberries. They were delicious. Nature's bounty was everywhere. The old burn had encouraged new growth in the fertile soil it left in it's wake. We later learned that the fire had burned through this area 8 years ago, in the summer of 2006.

photo by Kathy Vaughan/

     Below the summit of Windy Peak, Lisa and I took a break to have something to eat and soak in the views. As a trail crew supervisor for the Forest Service, Lisa has worked throughout much of the Pasayten Wilderness. She recognized many of the distant peaks as she cast her gaze out over the distant peaks and ranges. Referring to her map, Lisa was able to point out many of the areas where she had worked. The views were spectacular from this high perch. It was a perfect day to be in the mountains.

photo by Kathy Vaughan/

     We hit the trail again, now dropping down into Horseshoe Basin. This area was rich with little streams, other varieties of wildflowers like Indian paintbrush and lupine, and groves of aspen trees that offered nice shade with their thick foliage. The breeze carried with it the sound of their leaves quaking and bird song from the happy feathered creatures enjoying the trees. I love aspen groves. They are filled with character. Aspen often rot as they get bigger, due to growing in wet environments. This means that there are often downed aspen in these groves that get silvered, piling on top of each other like matchsticks. Some of the older gnarled ones that die remain standing. The woodpeckers like these and create holes in them, turning them into flutes as the wind passes through. The white bark of the aspen also contributes to the beauty found in these stands of trees, making them endearing throughout all of the seasons of the year.

photo by Kathy Vaughan/

     We climbed out of Horsehoe Basin to reach a place called Sunny Pass. Here, we were surrounded by lovely alpine meadows filled with flowers. The colors seemed almost unreal; bright fuschia Indian Paintbrush, purple lupine, yellow asters, white yarrow and other flowers encompassing every color of the rainbow. We ran a 2 mile out n' back from this point to hit a place called Louden Lake. This section of trail was cruisy, winding through these flower meadows, crossing streams and dancing through the rocky trail. We ran into an old timer who immediately introduced himself to us. He went through his entire list of experiences he'd had in this area since the early 1970's. He was in the middle of a training hike, getting him ready to keep up with the younger folks with whom he normally hikes. He was quite the character and Lisa and I had some good laughs throughout the rest of our run remembering our conversation with him. He had told us that in all of his years hiking in this area of the Pasayten, he had never talked to anyone that made the approach to Windy Peak from the same trail head that Lisa and I had used. 

photo by the old timer

     This was a fun little ego boost, as Lisa and I had both felt like we had mostly been climbing, now half way into our day. We had miles to go still, but our climbing legs were feeling the elevation gain we had been chewing away at, as we looked back over the direction from which we had come. We had been climbing over many downed trees, from the first section of trail we hit, throughout the rest of the day. We were surprised at this, Lisa having been told all trails were cleared. We turned it into a joke, each time we came to a huge jumble of stacked trees over the trail. One of us would call out “All's Clear!”. At the end of the day, we'd both be scratched and scraped from climbing over or crawling under these.

photo by Lisa Eversgerd

     We stayed up high, following a ridge line, after returning to Sunny Pass from our out n' back to Louden Lake. The trail became very rocky and technical, slowing our pace so that we could make our way through this section without a twisted ankle. We could see Windy Peak now. It was still far away. We would have to drop down off of this high ridge and climb 1,300 feet back up, in a mile and a half, to reach the lollipop stick portion of our route, before we would leave Windy Peak behind us for the day.

photo by Kathy Vaughan/

     I saw a nice flat rock, one like Ras would love to rest upon, so I suggested we take another break before continuing along the ridge. Lisa liked this idea. The flat rock had a huge one standing on end behind it, so we were able to rest up against it, stretching our legs out in front of us on the cool rock below. The day had been hot and dry, the temperatures reaching the mid 90's. We had kept well hydrated and stopped for water at a nice creek in the Horseshoe Basin. Our water was holding out pretty good, but we looked at the map and decided to stop and filter more at our next creek crossing. I was carrying a Katadyn water filter bag, convenient to fill from a water source and then hang from a tree branch or log to refill bottles through the gravity feed, while you rest and eat. Ras and I used this on our Arizona Trail thru hike and I highly recommend it as a great way to treat water on the trail. It's simple to use.

photo by Kathy Vaughan/

     Evening was coming on as we stopped at the creek. I put my Altra visor away, tucked my sunglasses and camera inside my pack and made sure my headlamp was handy to pull out when the light became too dim to see without it. I had extra batteries inside my pack, just in case. We continued through the creek bottoms. The evening air felt cooler and we made good time, working our way towards the big climb we knew we had ahead.

photo by Kathy Vaughan/

     The trail began to ascend and we knew we had now reached that climb. Only a mile and half, but it seemed to last forever. It became dark about half way into it and at the same time, the trail grew faint. Not many hikers use this route, and grasses were growing over it in places. I was leading the way. I slowed down at times and even came to a stop a time or two, trying to find the trail. At one point I said to Lisa that I thought maybe we had missed the turn for the lollipop stick. I felt like we really should have been to it by now and that we were possibly climbing Windy Peak for a second time instead of descending back down to the truck. She assured me it was just up ahead. My mind was playing tricks on me. I was tired and feeling like the climb was lasting forever, that surely we had missed our turn.
Sure enough, within minutes of this scare, we reached the silvered sign directing us back towards the trail head where we had begun our run this morning. We still had at least 4 miles to go, but at least we were on the final stretch and knew we were headed in the right direction.

     The trail tread became easier and I tried to pick up the pace, running when I could and speed hiking as fast as I could. It was getting late, but I didn't want to check my watch to see what time it was. I felt like this would break up the momentum and give me information I didn't really need to have. Putting one foot in front of the other as quickly as I could was the only focus I had at the time. Lisa said she could make coffee for us when we got to her truck and I was extremely motivated by this good news. I really love coffee and I couldn't wait to enjoy a cup when this night time trail adventure ended.

photo by Kathy Vaughan/

     My surroundings all looked the same. There were charred trees on either side of me, creating a tunnel, both physically and in my mind. I looked straight ahead, only sensing these trees in my periphery. I wanted to see the thick cover of the fireweed again, knowing this would mean we were almost to the truck. Lisa and I moved quietly, our visiting long since done. We moved together as a unit; I could hear her footfalls behind me and if they changed even the slightest, I would know. If she fell behind to make an adjustment, I sensed it. She and Ras both like when I lead the pace, so I have a sense of comfort in that position on the trail with both of them now. It feels natural and intuitive. I can always sense Ras dropping behind as well, and I usually know without looking what he's doing. If it takes a few minutes, he is likely fiddling around with his mp3 player. If it's just a few seconds, he's probably watering the trail. On hot days, I know he'll stop at creeks. If it's going to be more than a few minutes, he will call out to me to stop. With the right running partner, a run can at times feel like a solo venture. When running in silence together for miles, you can experience the solitude of the wilderness. You can have the safety and comfort of having a friend with you, while benefiting from the stillness of nature. I love that with both Ras and Lisa, I can have this experience.

photo by Kathy Vaughan/

     During one of our stretches of solitude, Lisa suddenly stopped behind me. She quietly said, “ There is some kind of bear down there.” I stopped and looked down into the deep creek bed, watching for movement or a dark animal. Within a few seconds, the bear began to run in the opposite direction of Lisa and I. Following behind, was her little cub. They were black bears, but in this area, it would not be out of the question to see a grizzly. Now, my bear sightings for the month of July total five (two mama bears with their cubs and one yearling by itself).

     Finally, Lisa called out that she could see reflectors down below. She was seeing her truck. I looked down and saw the reflections myself, thinking that we must have several switchbacks until we reached them. Instead, after just a few more minutes, we dropped right down to the back end of the truck, done with our Windy Peak Circumnavigation in 15:18.

     Lisa opened the tailgate and I pulled out my bag of dry, warm clothes. I saw her set up her Jet Boil to prepare the coffee she had promised while we were still on the trail. By the time I was changed into my cozy outfit, Lisa had pulled some amazing looking vegan spring rolls out of her cooler and opened up a container of Thai peanut dipping sauce. I could not believe my eyes. I had not gotten her Facebook message about this special treat she was bringing, and therefore I was surprised to see them there before me. As I thanked her, I opened the container of vegan chocolate chip/ dried apricot bars that I had made. We went over some of the highlights of our day as we filled ourselves with the nourishment we had brought to share with each other.

Gear List

  1. Altra Lone Peak 1.5s
  2. What An Adventure Ultra Bag
  3. Black Diamond Ultra Distance Z Poles (no longer able to fold down, duct taped together)
  4. Black Diamond headlamp with 3 extra AAA batteries
  5. Ras' Western Mountaineering puffy suit (lighter weight than my own Mammut puffy jacket and Montbell puffy pants)
  6. Smartwool hooded mid-weight sweater
  7. Smartwool toe socks
  8. Run Pretty Far gaiters
  9. Solomon black running skort
  10. North Face Spokane River Run tech-t
  11. Small ziplock baggie of first aid supplies: neoprene ankle wrap, a few Tums and Reed's ginger chews, 8 ibuprofen, inhaler for asthma (rarely use, but just in case), 2 benadryl capsules
  12. UltraPedestrian fleece beenie
  13. bandana
  14. Altra buff , visor and bracelet (Always Representing!!)
  15. bandana
  16. Buff Wear merino wool buff
  17. Swix cross country ski gloves
  18. Rain dickie (light weight rain vest that comes built into my W.A.A. Pack)
  19. Food for the day included: 1 raspberry flavored Hammer gel (leftover from a race), 6 Clif bars, a package of corn nuts (low fat & salty), 1 package of mango green tea beverage to add to my water bottle, several Nuun electrolyte tablets, 1 roasted garlic hummus sandwich on a chipotle roll (I was hesitant to eat the second sandwich I had brought as the day became hot and my stomach had times of queasiness already)

    photo by Kathy Vaughan/

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Baker Lake 100k Fat Ass Trip Report

Baker Lake 100k Fat Ass Trail Run:
Friending Frogs, Ferns & Five Finishes To Become A Hall of Famer

By Kathy Vaughan

     Two fisherman came towards Ras and I as we started out on our 63 mile run at around 7 a.m., the light having been in the sky for almost 3 hours now. It didn't look like they had caught anything, except a startle as they saw two runners coming towards them in the cool of the morning along Baker River. Ras and I had wanted to get an earlier start than this, but we had traveled across the North Cascades Highway to reach the Kulshan Campground around 10 p.m. The night before, after having gotten a surprise day off from our summer work at a local organic fruit orchard. The apricots needed more time to ripen and this gave us just the window of opportunity we had been looking for to run the Fat Ass Style 100k offered by Terry Sentinella, the race director of the official Baker Lake 50k Trail Run held the beginning of each October. Baker Lake 50k had been my first ultra, my first trail race, and my first organized event of any kind back in 2011 and I had run it every year since. I was determined to finish this 100k distance, not knowing what it would feel like to be running that second 50k until I was actually doing it.

     Ras and I had set out to run the 100k, Fat Ass style, in November, when Terry had offered it last year. The weather was frigid and wet, the days were shorter and we got 50k in before we called it due to running in standing ice water as snow continued to fall on us. This time around, we were using the same system we had used in November, by setting up a camp at Kulshan Campground and beginning the run at the Baker River Trailhead parking area on the other end of the lake, 15.5 miles away. We would run to our camp to change layers and access food and then run back to Baker River Trail head, twice. We had a cooler, stocked with burritos, veggie wraps and energy drinks. We had a bag of ice cubes to fill our water bottles with ice and the campground itself had a spigot we could use. Our car would be at the Baker River Trail head, stocked with a cooler, food and fresh clothing options as well. We would cover each 15.5 mile stretch, without support or filtering water, but then have a good resupply session at each turn around spot.

photo by Ras/

     The first 15.5 miles went smoothly. I started to sweat almost immediately from the humidity that hung in the damp, rich forest canopy. I enjoyed the views of the river as it braided it's way toward the lake. There were many alder trees, thimble berry bushes, salmon berries, horsetail, broad & narrow leaf plantain and varying grasses growing in the river valley. The trail crossed the Baker River on a sturdy suspension bridge. The trail was gentle and smooth, easy to start out the run at a good pace. Soon, we were to the lake and crossing bridges over drainages coming down off the steep hillside to our left. A rustling in the bushes drew our attention to a mama bear. We at first didn't see her young cub, but heard it as it climbed up a large fir tree. We said hi to the bear and then moved past it calmly. She stayed with her cub as we passed. It energized us to have this bear sighting. Ras and I had seen a yearling bear just 2 days previous in the East Pasayten Wilderness while on a portering job. I like seeing these wild creatures, so big and powerful, yet mostly wanting nothing more than to be left alone. In all of the bear sightings I've had over the years, they've always vanished into the wilderness as quickly as they could. The cubs have always climbed trees while the mother stays below. I respect the protectiveness they show of their young. Ras would sometimes joke with me while our daughter, Angela, was growing up, that I was like a mama Grizzly.

     The old growth trees stood like majestic giants along the trail, causing us to occasionally point out one of these beauties to each other. The old trees were mostly cedar and hemlock. The deep greens and lush undergrowth were pleasing to the eye. Ras and I live in the north central part of Washington, where the forests have been logged of almost all old growth; it is a rare joy to see ferns growing and the forest floor more open, hosting wild rose bushes, pine grass, lupine, currants, wild strawberries, and aspen groves. There are only a couple of cedar groves left in our area, special spots known only to a few locals.

photo by Ras/

     I love spending time in these rich forests on the western side of the Cascade range. Ras and I ran quietly for miles, taking in everything this forest and the lakeside views had to offer. After about 14 miles, we were off the single track and on dirt road, for the final descent to the Baker Dam. We crossed the dam, Mt. Baker nearly within an arm's reach, and then finished our first of four 15.5 mile legs.

     We ran up to our awaiting tent. The campground was peaceful yet active. Families were enjoying a nice summer day and an old timer had arrived, setting up his trailer in the camp neighboring ours. He watched us, seemingly curious about where we had come from and what we had planned. Ras ate a burrito he had made for himself, and I discovered that the spinach tortilla I'd used to put together a veggie wrap had become a soggy mess. I couldn't eat it. I had made two of these for the day, already cutting myself a little short. I had other food with me, but these wraps were meant to be my lunch and dinner, a little more sustenance than the Clif bars, gels and package of Clif Blocks I had brought. The last minute decision to drive over to Baker Lake and run 100k, had meant I'd put less time and energy into preparing food for the run than I normally did. While Ras was making his burritos, I made the decision to try to use up these spinach tortillas I had and stick with raw veggies rather than beans and rice. I should have stuck with our normal standby, bean & rice burritos. “Nothing new on race day” is a saying you hear in the running community. I've changed it to “Nothing new on adventure day”.

photo by Ras/

     We left Kulshan Campground after nearly 45 minutes spent adding new bars and other snacks to our packs, refilling our water bottles and mixing in a Nuun tablet, eating and resting. We decided that we would move steadily for each 15.5 mile stretch and take rests at each end as needed. We hiked the paved section to the dam, ran across it and then continued the steep dirt road climb back to the single track. We had seen a senior citizens' hiking group coming towards us as we finished this stretch on our way to Kulshan nearly an hour ago. We were now seeing this same group as they made their return hike back to their cars. They were spread apart now and very curious as to what we were up to, running towards them from the opposite direction. We answered their questions in whatever format seemed appropriate, depending on to whom we were speaking. Most folks would be to overwhelmed if we tried to explain we were going to run the length of this trail four times. One friendly man understood what we were in the middle of, as he had been on the trail in the fall when the official Baker Lake 50k and 100k trail race was being held. He had an understanding of ultra running and he cheered us on. I liked seeing this diverse group, trekking poles and oversized packs, proud of being on this hike they'd likely planned for weeks.

     It was now midday and the sun was hot. The humidity hung heavy and we continued to drip sweat. The creek drainages offered a wonderfully cool breeze, the air cold from the mountain streams. I wetted my bandana and Altra visor at each of these creeks, splashing water on my face as I did so. This helped keep my body temperature cooler. Nearly to the Baker River again after having run the length of the trail a second time, Ras and I stopped at a large bridge to take in the cold air coming off the hillside, being washed downstream with the ice cold water. He wet his dreadlocks and splashed water all over him. I wet my bandana and sat in the soft moss in the cool shade of a large tree. We wanted to keep making good progress on the trail, but we also knew that taking care of ourselves in this heat was important and would allow us to complete this run. Lowering our core body temperatures would keep us safe. We both love finding special spots along the trail to enjoy what nature has provided. This was one of them.

photo by Ras/

     After 9 hours of running, hiking and enjoying mountain streams, we made it to the Baker River Trailhead, where our car and cold drinks were waiting. At this turn around, I changed into dry Smart Wool toe socks and my max cushion Olympus. I had been wearing my Lone Peaks and they were giving me all of the traction and maneauverability I needed. I was now ready for some max cushion, my feet feeling the 31 miles they'd taken me so far. I have done this several times now on really long runs, starting out in the Lone Peaks and switching to the Olympus at the half way point, when my feet are ready for some max cushion love. This way, I get to run in both of my favorite shoes and enjoy the benefits of both styles. (Ras did the opposite, running the first 50k in the new Altra Paradigm sent to him by Phil at Seven Hills Running Shop, then changing into his trusty Lone Peaks for the second 50k.) As an Alta Ambassador, I'm blessed with owning both pairs and always interested in how they function in differing conditions, allowing me to share this information with others.

     As a newbie ultrarunner in 2011, I ran this very course and rolled an ankle after only a couple of miles. I then rolled it a 2nd time about ten miles deep, yet still refused to quit the race. This experience slowed me down for over a year, on downhill and rocky trail, nervous about reinjuring my ankle. Now, with a lot more experience and confidence, I was able to put on the Olympus, which has less traction than the Lone Peak, and know that I could handle the more technical sections of trail without the more aggressive lug.

photo by Ras/

     It felt good to sit down on the car seat while I changed into dry socks and the Olympus. I slammed a sugar-free, ice cold Rockstar energy drink, cherry flavored. What a treat! I like to trick myself into thinking the B vitamins, taurine and caffeine give me a much needed boost, but in reality, it just tastes good. I don't drink alcohol or soda, so this is the beverage of choice I turn to when I'm wanting a treat or reward during a hard endurance effort.

     I switched out of my Ultimate Directions PB vest into a Nathan vest. The UD pack, which has water bottles riding up front, was bruising my ribs. I loaded the Nathan vest, included my headlmap and extra batteries and mentally prepared myself to head out for a second 50k. I knew that once I got going, I would settle into the distance. Ras took care of his needs as well and we started off along the Baker River again. We began hiking, finishing the food we had been eating and softly chatting with each other about some of our strategies for the second half and giving each other positive feedback about how well our run had gone so far, despite the high humidity.

photo by Ras/

     I had changed into a dry Salomon skort, my favorite skort because the inner shorts provide compression and do not ride up while running, and I had hung my Altra shirt to dry, while we were on our last break. Starting out in fresh, dry clothing and different shoes, was a luxury I appreciated. Many of my runs are unsupported, and there is no option but to stay in the clothing and shoes in which I start. On my 800 mile thru hike of the Arizona Trail I'd completed in May with Ras, we both hiked in our same outfit every day, washing our clothes out whenever we had a chance to be by an appropriate water source. We were hiking in a minimalist style and carrying as little gear with us as possible. On the AZT a fresh outfit to change into would have been an unnecessary luxury, as pack weight in food and water was the priority.

     The air had not begun to cool and the thick mugginess was still present. We listened to our mp3 players and made our way along the trail, now mixing in more hiking on the steeper sections as the miles began to take their toll on our bodies. The course gains a total of about 7,000 feet in elevation, which makes for a mostly rolling trail, with only a few sets of switchbacks. The trail winds along a high point in one section, away from the thick forest canopy and exposed to the breeze coming off of the large lake. It felt so good to be in this more open air. We picked up the pace and before we knew it, we were running down the dirt road for the 2nd time, almost to the dam crossing and then Kulshan Campground for our final turnaround point.

photo by Ras/

     Darkness had settled over the trail now and with it, a slight cooling in the temperature. I still felt sweaty, yet with the cooler air temperatures, it had become even more uncomfortable. At times I felt clammy & cold, and then I would feel uncomfortably hot. I had changed into a long sleeved shirt when we got to Kulshan, thinking I was going to feel cooler in the night. I had to keep pulling up my sweater to get some air to my clammy skin. I also began to feel drowsy, the dark night progressing as we worked to finish up the miles.

     The moonlight shone down on us and cast a dim light over the lake. The grand outlines of Mt. Baker and Shuksan could be seen in the distance, the moon allowing just enough light in the sky. We had gotten inside the tent at Kulshan to stay warm on our break. We decided to get under the sleeping bag, but our damp clothing and clammy skin wouldn't dry enough to allow us any comfort during the rest. Ras suggested we take a several hour nap and then finish off the last leg. He would need to drive us back to the Okanogan when we finished, and at that time we had thought we would just drive straight to work at the orchard. He thought the nap would help. I just wanted to take a brief rest and then get this run done. I knew the final 15.5 miles could possibly be a suffer fest, but I also knew I could do it. And I was ready to do it.

     Falling asleep while running/hiking in the night is a very disorienting thing to experience. My breathing began to change to a deep, relaxed style, the way one breathes when lying in bed ready to fall asleep for the night. I would start to have little dreams and then find myself off to the side of the trail, stumbling. The music I had playing in one ear had sounds to it that would sometimes startle me and for a moment I'd think it was coming from something in the woods. At several points along the way, we gave in to the tiredness and took very short trailside naps. The first time we did this, I had been stumbling along quietly, trying to stay awake. I did not know that Ras was struggling in this same way until he said, “I'm going to try to make it to Kevin's aid station, but I really need to sit down and take a short nap.” I was so relieved to hear him say this, as I was fantasizing about snuggling down in a soft bed of moss. Each place that looked even remotely inviting along the trail as we passed, would send me into one of these fantasies. Our friend Kevin Douglas had captained the Maple Grove aid station during the Baker Lake Trail Runs in the fall, so we now referred to this spot as “Kevin's Aid Station.”

     It seemed to take forever to get to Kevin's spot, but when we did we both remembered some nice logs surrounded by grasses that would be the perfect place to get a little rest before pushing forward. We kept our packs on but turned out our headlamps as we nestled into our sleeping spots. I wanted to keep a balance between fully sinking into the ground and allowing myself to sleep, yet not going into a deep enough sleep from which I would not awaken in 10 minutes or less. From Kevin's, Ras and I still had 10 miles to go. We could not afford to nap for too long.

     We got up from this rest and continued along the trail. Large frogs were enjoying the damp nighttime trail and sometimes it was hard to not step on them. We must have seen over 50 frogs, once darkness had come. By headlamp, the frogs' little eyes glowed in the dark while they slowly crawled off the trail, into the bushes along it's edge, more scared of us than we were of them. We saw only a couple of smaller frogs, most of them were large and pokey.

photo by Ras/

     Suddenly, Ras called out “What's that?” I looked ahead in the trail and saw a small, smoothed off stump in the middle of the path. Ras thought he had seen a calico cat, ready to go down into a burrow in the trail. We had been seeing many holes in the middle of the trail, made by marmots or ground squirrels. I told Ras he was hallucinating. He told me, no, it was merely a figment. We were both tired.

     Picking, sorting and packing organic fruit on our feet for nine hour work days had not prepped us well, as far as rest was concerned. We were tired going into this run, and now that night had fallen, we were just very sleepy. We took several more of this type of a trail side nap. Finally, we could see the sky lightening and the lake was once more fully visible. I could see the end of the lake, the Baker River dumping into it, bringing with it the Sockeye salmon that the floatilla of fishing boats had been after when we started this run the previous morning. I was ready to be out of the forest, running along the river, and finishing up at the car before too much light was in the sky.

     Ras and I passed by the cave entrances that had sent a draft of cold air our way as we passed them earlier in the day. We passed by the huckleberry and thimble berry bushes that had offered us juicy treats as we ran by their bushes in the hot daylight hours. Ras looked at his watch and said if we ran with everything we had left in us for the final river stretch, we could finish in under 23 hours. We pushed as hard as we could, leaving it all on the trail, to come in with a finishing time on this self-supported 100k of 22 hours 49 minutes.

     We were so happy to be done. We had just completed our 5th Baker Lake run, the place where it all began for me 3 years ago, where I had my first ultra finish. Now, I had earned a spot in the Baker Lake Hall of Fame for having five finishes on this course. And I'd completed my first 100k. I can't wait to get that belt buckle. The middle of the night naps and tears had been replaced with the day's first light, a big smile on my face and endorphins raging throughout my system. Announcing to Ras on that last leg that I was not going to run Baker Lake 50k again in the fall, was premature. New rule: No making proclamations of what you will never ever do again when you are in the throes of an adventure. Now, my goal is to run along that lake again, the maple trees colorful and fragrant with their fall foliage, having a blast doing it, setting a course PR for myself in the process.

     We drove back to our tent at the Kulshan Campground and crawled inside. Ras was asleep and snoring within minutes. I tend to toss and turn after a big run, my feet aching and my mind racing with memories of what I have just done. I rested for a couple of hours and then got up to make veggie burgers and coffee. I visited with the old timer camping next to us and enjoyed the relaxation of being in the scenic campsite, my year long goal of running the Baker Lake 100k now accomplished.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Love & Trails in New Zealand

Love And Trails In New Zealand

copyright Tim Mathisby Tim Mathis

     There is an archetypal story that we might call “The One Who Got Away”, about a young man who falls in love for the first time, but loses the girl (the reason why doesn’t really matter). The man goes on to settle for another woman whom he marries and builds a life with, but he always secretly wishes he was with his first love, and wonders how his life might have been different if they’d stayed together.  

     If you plug me into that storyline, “The One Who Got Away” was a country, rather than a woman – New Zealand, to be exact. While I’ve settled down with Washington State in the last 9 years, and we’re happy, the biggest piece of my heart has always belonged to Aotearoa.

     I moved to NZ from Kentucky in 2003, with my (actual, human) first love Angel. At the time I was there partly on a spiritual quest to sort out my religious beliefs and career path by completing a Masters Degree in Theology, and partly on a classic “OE” (Overseas Experience) focused on learning a bit about a world that seemed big and foreign, having spent my upbringing entirely in a small town in Midwestern America.  

     Stepping off of the plane in Dunedin, an old Scottish South Island settlement, I was immediately in love with the most beautiful and unusual place that I’d ever been. During my two year stay in the country, I developed my first deep connection with a geographic location. The dramatic green hills of the Otago coast and the nearby Otago Peninsula, the Southern Alps and Fiordland National Park were all places that were beautiful beyond anything else I had previously conceptualized, and they sucked me in, drunk in love.  

     When the fling was over two years later, my student visa was expired and our travel plans were complete, leaving was traumatic. We moved to Seattle so that Angel could pursue an advanced degree in Nursing, and I spent the first several years here comparing the place unfavorably to New Zealand. Despite a few cursory flirtations with Mt. Rainier and the Olympic Peninsula, I obnoxiously told anyone who asked that while WA is fine, “it’s not as nice as New Zealand”. And while a new trail running habit ultimately convinced me to settle down with WA – a beauty I learned to love reluctantly, but eventually deeply – I always envisioned New Zealand as the ideal place.  

     And so, when we finally planned a return trip for March 2014, nine years after we’d left, I was a bit nervous. I wondered if she would still be as beautiful, and if I would still love her as much now that I’d travelled more and had a broader range of experiences.  

The Plan

     Having devoted much of our time to studying and establishing ourselves in careers, for the first several years we lived in Seattle Angel and I generally suppressed our international wanderlust and spent most of our time in the Pacific Northwest. However, following my graduation from nursing school, a 2013 trip to walk/run Spain’s El Camino de Santiago reminded us of earlier commitments we’d made to prioritize travel, and we immediately began thinking about another trip. That impulse quickly materialized into plans for an overdue return to New Zealand, and a conversation in a bar with friends developed the plans into a multi-week backpacking (or “tramping”, in Kiwi terms) and trail running group outing through the wilds of the South Island. 

     Tramping is a national past-time in New Zealand on par with any other sport, and they have a remarkable trail and hut network, including a system of nine multi-day Great Walks – veritable wilderness highways that attract walkers from around the world – alongside thousands of kilometers of other less-utilized trails. Our plan was to spend a few weeks completing four multiday trails in the Southern Alps around Queenstown, and in Fiordland National Park in the Southwest of the country, some as hikes and some as runs. We would backpack the 60km Rees-Dart Track with our friend Christie. We would then spend a night in the small town of Glenorchy and wake early to complete the 32 km Routeburn Track (a Great Walk) in a day, camping at the start of the connecting Greenstone-Caples Circuit (another 61km). Then we would catch a shuttle to Te Anau, a small tourist town on the edge of Fiordland National Park, and rest for a few days before running the 60km Kepler Track (another Great Walk) in a day. The Kepler is the site of one of New Zealand’s most iconic races of any type – the Kepler Challenge ultramarathon – and when we’d lived there, it seemed unfathomable that anyone would be able to complete it.  Returning as mildly-seasoned trail runners, it seemed like a fitting ending to our trip to run the course. (See the Appendix at the end if you want more logistical details on how to organize this trip!) With side trips, this would allow us to see around 150 miles of New Zealand trail in about 10 days, and get a mixed experience of both relaxed tramping and challenging push days. (Angel, who arrived earlier than the rest of us, also ran the Northburn 50k outside of Cromwell, near Queenstown, a race that was won this year by American Sage Canaday, who had coincidentally also destroyed the field and course record at our local WA race, the White River 50, when we ran it in 2012.)

     In both spirit and practice, our trip was divided into two sections: the first half spent in the mountains and on the trails in the Southern Alps, and the second spent on the coast and in the city in Dunedin near New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula. During the first part of our trip we would be experiencing the country as explorers again. While we had visited some of the areas we would be in, we hadn’t seen mosty of the 150 miles of trail we’d be covering. We also spent this part of our trip as low-rent tour guides for our friends Adam and Broeck, who had never been to the country. The second part of our trip was experienced as locals –  at least sort of – as Dunedin was the town we’d lived in, and old friends would be putting us up.

On Trail

     A complex set of emotions overlaid the experience in the Southern Alps.  It felt nostalgic to be back in NZ and exciting to be experiencing one of the most beautiful places in the world in a new way. We’d come back in much better shape than we’d left, and in the first two weeks of this trip we spent more nights on the trail than we had during our two years of life there, experiencing the country as hikers and trailrunners rather than as student travelers.

     And we were a bit anxious about how Broeck and Adam would experience the country. They are our good friends, and both seasoned travelers and outdoors-people. Adam may know Washington trails as well as anyone in the state, and Broeck spent her childhood vacations in the remote Alaskan wilderness. We had bragged up New Zealand as the undisputed best place in the world, and we were worried that 1) we might have overplayed our hand and 2) they might not love it as much as we did.  

     And, there was of course the trepidation that comes along with seeing an old love for the first time after a decade of separation. Would it still seem as unique and beautiful, now that we had more worldly experience?  

The Rees-Dart Track

     By the first morning on the Rees-Dart track, all of the concerns were overshadowed by excitement and overwhelmed by natural beauty. We hiked up the Rees Valley on a rainbow-filled day that was both sunny and rainy in a way that only New Zealand can be, with its mix of alpine and island weather patterns. Our group, which included our friend Christie from Invercargill, made stupid jokes about stepping in cow poop (a very common experience on this first day of our trip) and looked forward to the days ahead in the mountains as we headed towards higher country.      

photo copyright Tim Mathis

     On our second morning, we headed out early in an attempt to get to our destination by mid-day so that we could fit in a 20km side trip up to a spot called Cascade Saddle that we’d heard was spectacular. The morning’s hike itself included a relatively short but steep climb over the Rees Saddle, before a long drop to the hut on the Dart River. On the descent, Adam and I pushed ahead a bit, but were surprised to find ourselves waiting for 30 minutes at the hut before the women arrived. It turned out that Angel had suffered a near disaster, and took a misstep that pitched her forward and slammed her knee against a rock, causing a bloody incision that would have required stitches if we had not been two days’ walk from the nearest clinic. Angel is tough. She once dropped a knife, point down, onto her toe in our kitchen and superglued the resulting puncture wound together rather than paying a medical bill. With assistance from our friend Christie (who, like Angel and me, is a nurse), she managed to clean and tape the wound in order to continue ahead. When they arrived at the hut, there was nothing to be done but elevate her knee and hope that it didn’t get infected, because continuing the hike was the only real option short of a helicopter ride.

     Angel seemed optimistic about her wound care (and as a former emergency department nurse, she was qualified to make an assessment), and she encouraged Adam and I to continue with our planned side trip to Cascade Saddle that afternoon. The trail passes through a valley formed by the massive Dart Glacier before climbing steeply to the saddle, which has panoramic views of the glacier, NZ’s iconic Mount Aspiring, and the Metukituki river valley on the opposite side of the mountains. On the return to the hut at dusk, concerns about Adam not being impressed with New Zealand had disappeared as he suggested that the route was possibly the best trail run he’d ever been on. I silently gloated that my assessment was being vindicated, that New Zealand is in fact the best place in the world.

photo copyright Tim Mathis

     Located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, New Zealand is one of the world’s most active tectonic zones, which makes for a landscape that is constantly, if slowly, changing. In other terms, New Zealand is alive. Angel’s leg, thankfully, held up, and on our hike out of the Dart Valley we got a firsthand experience of that alive-ness. Several months before our trip, a massive rock slip blocked off the Dart River, creating a new, 2 mile long lake.  The flora and fauna in New Zealand have evolved separately from the rest of the world for several million years and already make for a surreal environment. The addition of a lake covering live trees to a depth of several meters made the trip seem like something out of a fantasy novel. (I wonder if anyone has thought to make a Lord of the Rings analogy?)  

photo copyright Tim Mathis

The Routeburn in a Day

     The Routeburn is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks – trails through some of New Zealand’s most beautiful genuine wilderness that are maintained as well as most city-park trails in the US. After we finished the Rees-Dart, we stayed for a night in Glenorchy at a classic New Zealand Hotel/Pub, the Glenorchy Hotel (we camped in their yard), and then were dropped off by Christie to tackle the Routeburn as a day hike. It was a bizarre experience in some ways, walking 19 miles from the middle of nowhere to the middle of nowhere and finding dozens of half-ton bags of gravel that had been helicoptered in for trail maintenance, and passing huts with full electricity and stoves, and hundreds of beds for hikers.  But it was also remarkable that there was literally no trash visible anywhere on the trail. The Routeburn was, in my opinion, the most beautiful day of walking on our trip, and we used the trail to cross from Glenorchy to the start of the Greenstone-Caples track in Fiordland National Park, a trip that would have taken three hours to drive due to limited road access to the area. It was a long day, and we shared the trail with hundreds of other hikers, and a couple of runners, but it was still genuinely spectacular.

photo copyright Tim Mathis

The Greenstone-Caples

     The Greenstone-Caples sticks to lower elevations than the other tracks we were walking, so we expected it to be the least spectacular. But it isn’t just alpine scenery that makes New Zealand seem like Narnia.

     Because New Zealand split from Australia before they evolved, the country has no indigenous mammals aside from a few species of bats. The ones that have been introduced are an interesting hodgepodge of pets, stowaways, and beasts that Europeans thought would be fun to hunt: mountain goats, Australian possums (cute things that resemble the offspring of a house cat and a raccoon more than the rat-faced opossums we have in North America), hedgehogs and wild pigs. There are even legends about moose wandering Fiordland National Park, the probably mythological remnant of a small population introduced in the early 20th century.  

     Though there are some indigenous reptiles (and one dinosaur-like creature that evolved separately from the reptiles – the tuatara), New Zealand is really an island of birds, the descendants of winged ancestors who happened upon the island by chance or misfortune, depending on your perspective.  The Moa was a giant ostrich-like flightless bird that was likely hunted to extinction by the Maori, NZ’s original human inhabitants, before Europeans arrived.  Everyone has heard of the iconic kiwis, but they exist mostly on offshore islands now due to predation by introduced mammals. So perhaps the most interesting, extant, and readily visible species in New Zealand now is the Kea. The world’s only alpine parrot, Keas are quite endangered, but also quite social and are often visible approaching hikers (or drivers) above the treeline. Commonly described as “cheeky”, they are well-known as camp robbers that destroy boots, tents and weather stripping on cars in their quest for food and nesting material. They are named after their call, which is frequently audible for miles in the mountains, and have a typical parrot look, if not coloring. Their feathers are dark green, except for a distinctive flash of dull orange under their wings.  

     On our first morning hiking the Greenstone, Broeck and Adam had a magical and rare experience of being approached first by one kea, then by six more simultaneously. They resisted the temptation to feed them, which apparently frustrated the band of marauders. They seemed to block their path as they attempted to move forward, and followed them as they hiked ahead before eventually giving up and flying away.  

“There’s a Dead Sheep in the River”

     Each of the Department of Conservation huts on the trip had a register where hikers could state intentions, note where they were from, and offer comments on the trail.  In the evening we would routinely read through the register, and on our first night on the Greenstone we laughed about one commenter, who simply wrote: “There’s a dead sheep in the river.”  

     Like the Rees-Dart, the Greenstone-Caples is named after, and follows, two river valleys. Our second day’s hike was a warm day along a particularly clear and inviting stretch of the Greenstone, and about mid-day we arrived at a perfect swimming hole: deep water, a slow current, and multiple rocks to jump off. Just as I was stripping down to jump in, Broeck yelled: “Oh gross! There’s that dead sheep in the river!”

     And indeed, on the opposite river bank from where I was preparing to dive, there was a dead, bloated sheep with feet raised in the air almost comically. It was downstream, and after considering the likelihood that it would be a long time before I would have this opportunity again, I jumped in. The water was cold, and I didn’t seem to catch anything.

photo copyright Tim Mathis

The End of the Hike
     A few years back, New Zealand officially introduced its own long distance through-hike: Te Araroa (“The Long Trail”), which traverses from the Northern tip of the North Island at Cape Reinga to the South end of the South Island at Bluff. On the second-to-last night of our hike, our hut happened to sit at the intersection of the Caples track and a section of Te Araroa. In the evening, after the day’s walk, we followed it up the hill to a viewpoint of the Caples Valley, and then followed a cattle trail down the hill to the river. In order to get back to the trail we had to ford the Caples, and while it wasn’t the last thing we did on the trail, it is the lasting image that I have of the end of our hike: shoes off, crossing a crystal clear river with friends, mountains on either side at sunset: 100% Pure New Zealand.  

photo copyright Tim Mathis

The Kepler

     The day after the Caples crossing, we hiked out and caught a shuttle to Te Anau, a small tourist town on the edge of Fiordland National Park. We spent a few days recuperating, sight-seeing, and catching up again with Christie (who had dropped us at the start of the Routeburn before heading off to work for a few days). The Kepler Track starts within walking distance of town, so Te Anau made a great base both for exploring Fiordland and preparing for our planned run.  

     The Kepler is another of New Zealand’s Great Walks, and one that we thought would be too difficult to tackle when we lived in the country. Running it was one of my main personal goals for the trip. I hear that it features some of the best scenery of any New Zealand hike, and it seemed like the perfect capstone project for our trip.

     Fortunately, on the day of our run, we had great temperatures and no precipitation. Unfortunately, we had dense low cloud cover that persisted throughout the day. We spent a large portion of our day traversing along a ridge at the top of a mountain range, and I’m sure the views were spectacular. We just saw cloud. After 12 straight days of beautiful weather, we couldn’t really complain, but it was disappointing. Still, we finished the run and finished off our time with Broeck and Adam with a satisfying bit of evidence that we had significantly improved our personal fitness in the time since we’d left.  


     After the Kepler, we had completed the first, and trail-focused, part of our trip, and we reluctantly parted ways with Broeck and Adam so they could return to Queenstown and then on to home, and we could return to Dunedin – our own home, of sorts.

     Dunedin is a much different place from the Southern Alps, despite its relative proximity (just a three hour drive away). It is an old settlement, New Zealand’s first major city and a very Scottish place. “Dunedin” is the old Celtic word for Edinburgh, and Mark Twain said of the original settlers that "The people here are Scots. They stopped here on their way to heaven, thinking they had arrived." It is spectacularly beautiful in its own right; surrounded by dramatic bald hills and spectacular ocean views reminiscent of the San Francisco Bay area, only greener due to the rain. (The hills in Dunedin are bald because they were cleared for sheep, which still shear the grass, not because things won’t grow there.) The town is comprised of cute bungalows, spectacular stone cathedrals, and stately manors built by 19th century gold barons.  

     It’s also the place that I had personally loved the most, and I was strangely nervous about returning.

     I have to admit that the first few days there, though nostalgic, felt vaguely disappointing, not because things were bad, but because they felt so…average. After years of fantasizing about moving back any time things weren’t going well in Seattle, and playing it up as the place where the grass is always greener, returning felt like meeting a celebrity in real life, or seeing a much-hyped movie for yourself. It was great, but it was also pretty normal. The setting was still spectacular, but it also rained for most of the time we were there. The architecture was still beautiful, but the city also smelled a bit like the coal that is used to heat many of the houses. And our friends were still our friends, but we had all changed in the last 9 years, and we sometimes struggled to find points of connection rooted in the present rather than just our past together. 

     But after spending several days catching up with friends and the place, we managed to redeem Dunedin, and make it feel more than normal again.

     When I had come to Dunedin before, I had done so for religious reasons. While I was returning after having left the religious world, one of the lingering lessons I’d kept had to do with the power of ritual. Religious ritual, in its daily routines and organized communal activities, comprises a set of physical actions that are, among other things, aimed at connecting people emotionally with the spiritual aspects of life. In basic terms, and at their best, they are things that you do so that you will experience the meaningful aspects of existence more fully. Even no longer practicing an organized religion, I still participate in rituals, intentionally or not. And in the last four years the ritual that has most reliably connected me to the meaningful aspects of existence is running, and particularly running long.

     After we moved away from New Zealand in 2005, one of our friends, Steve Tripp, had become both a mission worker in the slums of Cambodia and an avid long distance runner. (He completed his first ultramarathon with Angel at Northburn Station.) He and his family moved back to New Zealand just a few months before we visited, and he insisted on both putting us up for a few nights and taking us out for a run on some of his favorite trails on our last night in town.

     Dunedin has actually achieved a small amount of fame within the trail running world.  The town is home to Anna Frost, one of the world’s top ultra runners, and it was featured in a promotional video from Solomon that profiled some of her favorite trails. We went for a run in some of those profiled places; to the top of Mt. Cargill, the highest point in the city, across logging roads before bushwhacking through clearcut to get to one of the most rugged trails I’ve ever run on; through dense bush, all ferns, vines, streams and birdsong, and back down a long road descent into town. 

     The run was beautiful, but not the most spectacular of the trip (that honor belongs to the Cascade Saddle route that Adam and I ran after Angel’s injury). But it was among the most meaningful runs that I’ve ever taken. Dunedin was a place that I loved, and that shaped me in my early 20’s. And it was a place that I’ve always viewed unrealistically as a less-crazy version of Billy Madison’s “Happy Place”. After spending he first part of the visit trying to recapture a relationship to the place that had passed, experiencing Dunedin again as a runner helped establish a new relationship. Neither Dunedin nor I were the same as when we’d last parted, but there was still something meaningful and beautiful there, something that helped me to experience Dunedin (and by proxy, New Zealand) again like home.         

photo copyright Tim Mathis

A Brief Logistical Appendix: The Central Otago/Mt. Aspiring/Fiordland Tramping Route      

Rees-Dart > Routeburn > Greenstone-Caples > Kepler

     When we were planning our trip, we wanted to maximize our time on the trails and minimize travel time and costs, and we wanted to spend the bulk of our time in New Zealand’s most beautiful areas. While the route we came up with was intuitive and would work well for anyone from the average hiker interested in about 2 weeks in the NZ bush to an intrepid runner who wants to cover a lot of beautiful terrain in 4 – 5 days, I didn’t find anything similar outlined on the internet, so I’d like to take a minute to describe our logistics for anyone who might be interested in using the template.  

     The starts of the Rees-Dart, Routeburn, and Greenstone-Caples tracks are all in relatively close proximity to one another outside of Glenorchy, and the tracks can actually be combined in a number of ways. Some automobile transport is necessary, but shuttles serve all of the trailheads (none take more than 45 minutes or so from Glenorchy). This map from the shuttle service we used illustrates the layout nicely.

     Flying in to Queenstown, our basic strategy was to 1) get car transport to start our trip with a night in Glenorchy (hitched with a friend but buses run regularly), 2) catch a shuttle to the start of the Rees-Dart, 3) shuttle back to Glenorchy for a night and resupply (2 notes: the Rees-Dart Circuit is a horseshoe rather than a loop, so you have to shuttle from a different point than where you started.  Also, Glenorchy has a small grocery, but it’s really expensive and selection is very limited.  We stocked up on our food in Queenstown and most any accommodation will allow you to leave things to pick up on the return – their economy is based on backpackers.), 4) catch a ride to the start of the Routeburn and walk it in a day at which point we could, 5) camp at the start of the Greenstone, which intersects the Routeburn, 6) walk the Greenstone-Caples circuit, 7) catch a shuttle from “the Divide” (just a carpark, no services) to Te Anau, 8) stay a few nights in Te Anau and 9) run the Kepler, which is a loop trail within walking distance/a 5 minute shuttle ride from Te Anau.

     The advantages of this approach were:

1) It was convenient: it was possible to start each trail the day after completing the previous one.

2) It was flexible: no forward booking required. The disadvantage of having popular trails (the Great Walks) is that forward booking is required to stay in the huts, and they fill up months in advance on the Routeburn in particular.The huts on less popular trails generally don’t. In our case, because we never spent a night on a Great Walk, we weren’t locked in to our itinerary if something came up, although this did require us to carry tents in case huts were full (only happened one night) and to camp at the start of the Greenstone.

3) It was pretty cheap. NZ does require payment for camping and hut use, but it is generally cheap, except on the Great Walks. The huts on the Routeburn were $52/night, which included a bed, running water/toilet, and gas stoves. The Kepler huts were similar, but slightly cheaper. Camping was $15 on the Great Walks. All other huts in the country are $15/night max, which generally includes a bed w/mattress, toilets and a water source. Backcountry camping permits are $5/night, I believe. The nice thing is that you can purchase a 6 month pass from any Department of Conservation office (DOC) for $96 as of 2014, and that gives you unlimited hut access (excluding Great Walks, which are on their own system). Pretty cheap rent for really excellent facilities on this circuit. And if you’re going anywhere else on the trails, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to use the pass – there are 950+ huts in the country covered by the DOC! 

4) It covered amazing, varied scenery: four mountain Saddles (five with the side trip to Cascade Saddle), four river valleys, three major lakes, multiple glaciers, two national parks, high country and low country.  

     From the map linked above, you can see that it would be easy to mix things up with these trails. Either the Greenstone or Caples could be used to connect back to Glenorchy rather than shuttling on to Te Anau. And Te Anau can be used as a base for a ton of other trails, including the Milford Track, which is supposed to be amazing. 

     One word of caution is that if you hope to cut out the Routeburn but want to see Fiordland, it’s a three hour drive (or so) from Glenorchy to Te Anau. The Routeburn is actually a much more direct route to Fiordland from the Queenstown area than the road, and you could probably run the trail from end to end as quickly as you could drive from one end to the other due to the peculiarities of mountain passes and Lake Wakatipu’s location. 

Tim Mathis lives in Seattle and is a regular contributor to He has been running trails with his wife Angel for a couple of years.  One time they ran across Spain fueled mostly on pastries and espresso.  He blogs occasionally at and has contributed to and Trailrunner Magazine.