Early Winter in the Highlands Part 1 of 4: Whistler Canyon Tofu Trot
Once fall season comes to a close, the weather and landscape take on another change. Sometimes the days are gray, cold and uninviting. There have been skiffs of snow, but not enough to put on cross-country skis yet. The draw to go outside and do a long run or hike, can have a tendency to weaken.
This year, I have been blessed with one exhilerating adventure after another. I made sure to plan out fun and challenging trips, write them down on my calendar and my on-going lists of ultra running plans and then follow through with them, despite what Mother Nature decided to serve up weather-wise. This is the first in a series of blog posts I am writing on these trips.
The Tofu Trot Twenty-nine and a half miler is a run Ras and l conceptualized to run on Thanksgiving. We were doing the run on the 28th of November, so we decided to make it a 28 mile distance. We decided to run the 100 trail, including the Black Diamond Lake loop in its entirety and part of the Wild Horse Springs Loop. We would run from the river valley up into the highlands as an out n' back, including ventures onto these other loops. In reality, we ended up with 29.5 miles, thus the name change to reflect the proper distance we had run.
The 100 trail is a part of the Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail and also a part of the H3 course, where Ras and I hold a a trail ultra Halloween weekend each year. We decided to start down in the Okanogan River valley at the Whistler Canyon trail head. We can also access the north end of the trail right out our door. We already had some snow on the ground around our house and we knew the trail would have snow on it up high as well. Down in the valley, the temperatures are warmer and the trail would be mostly clear of snow. So, we decided to start down lower.
We arrived at the trail head at about 8:30 in the morning and after a few preparations at the car, we made our way to the trail. Some movement caught my eye and when I looked in that direction, I saw the rump of a Big Horn Mountain Sheep running through the dry grass lands at the base of the canyon walls. I pointed it out to Ras and then we both noticed there were a lot more that this one was running towards. Ras wanted to take some pictures up close, so he ran off towards where the herd was gathering and climbing the steep cliffs. It was very cool to see how they moved in such an agile way up the rocks, stopping on a high ledge to look back down towards Ras. He lost count at some point, but the herd was about 40 strong.
After a little over 2 miles, we reached the southern trail head to the Black Diamond Lake loop. I had been up this trail before with Ras and also with my friend and running partner Shona. We had not yet been able to make it all the way around the loop without missing a turn, so Ras and I were determined to take the time to figure it out today.
We followed the trail easily as it climbed steadily for a couple of miles. Soon we reached a series of several frozen lakes. Ras saw a blob of bright white off to his right near one of these lakes, in amongst mostly brown and dry leaves. As he looked at the white that had caught his attention, he realized it was a snow shoe hare, sitting perfectly still. The hare had already turned completely white, its winter camoflauge. It seemed to be sitting frozen, thinking that its camo was working. It is so unusual to see one of these critters up close, that we paused to watch it for several minutes. I see their tracks and a flash of white in the snow quite often while out cross country skiing in the winter. I felt honored to have this moment of stillness with the normally elusive snow shoe hare.
|Someone's camouflage isn't working.|
Just beyond these lakes, the trail takes a sharp hairpin turn. This is where I have gotten turned around in the past, but this time Ras and I were able to easily find our way through this section and continue around the loop. After about 5 miles, we were back on the 100 trail again. It was great to make our way around the loop. Now, it is one of my favorite local runs. I love the way the single track twists and turns through the trees, topping out in a section mixed with huge rocks and grassy overlooks. Then, after the hairpin turn, the trail goes along the rim of a small, yet deep canyon. This section ends at another grassy bluff and then winding through the trees again, until the loop closes at the intersection with the 100 trail again. Starting from Whistler Canyon trail head and doing the loop as a lollipop, the distance is 9.5 miles.
Back on the 100 trail, Ras and I now had some more climbing to do. We were now simply doing an out n' back and we would turn around at the mile point. The climb was gradual yet persistent. We enjoyed settling into a steady pace, chatting as we moved and keeping warm by not making any stops. There were patches of snow, but for the most part, the trail was just frozen hard. We reached a nice section of easily runnable trail after miles of climbing and fell into a good pace, running now on soft pine needles, in an old road bed. We had been in trees before, but now the view opened up to the river below us and the orchards that surround it, irrigated by its waters in the hot summer months. The river looked like a silver ribbon, winding its way down the valley. The clouds were dark and heavy in the sky.
The trail has a nice picnic table in this area, but the winds were strong and cold. The sun was shining and its warmth felt good. We climbed through the large rocks to find a place sheltered from the wind. We wanted to sit for a lunch break. I had made us some good sandwiches-seitan roast, pickles, onions, herbs, romaine lettuce and soy mayo on sourdough bread. We were both ready for some solid food, after having so far snacked mostly on wasabi almonds, peanut butter crackers, Justin's nut butter pouches and Gu Chomps.
We pulled out our down puffy jackets and bundled up for lunch. It felt good to sit and hang out for a little while, enjoying the view and the landscape of large rocks we were sitting amongst. "Sitting is a big part of my running", Ras has been know to say. Purely existing in these moments, not moving, not thinking about moving; these are the times when I realize that being on the trail is a way of life for me. Sitting on the earth and eating, keeping myself warm in the wind, just quietly being next to the one I love are all a part of why I like to go out on the trails for hours at a time, as many days out of the week as I can.
Shedding our down jackets and stuffing them back into our packs, Ras and I got back up and continued our way into the higher country. We veered right off the 100 trail to continue on the Wild Horse Springs trail until we reached our turn around point. We still had several hours of daylight left. The wind felt calmer as we reached the shelter of the forest again. We passed by a couple of more frozen lakes along this loop trail. We startled an owl who silently flew off to perch in a tree over looking one of the lakes. It took a moment to register with me that I hadn't heard its wings as it took flight, like the more common birds that I see on the trails- ravens, hawks and grouse. It seems like I startle a grouse, which in turn makes my heart skip a beat, almost every time I am out on a run.
We were almost to our turn around point when up ahead we saw a horse. It is not unusual to see cows on the trails in our area because they are allowed to free range on Forest Service land. It is unusual to see a horse though, especially this time of year. The horse looked healthy and had lots of dry grass where it was grazing. There was a grove of fir and pine trees where the horse had been going for shelter as we could see lots of hoof prints hardened into the frozen mud. The horse just looked at us and kept on nibbling on grass. No one was around. I was concerned about the horse because of the cold weather, frozen water sources and lack of good shelter. Shona had seen a horse earlier in the fall and I wondered if it was the same horse, still out wandering on its own.
We continued on until we reached our turn around. We put on a couple of extra layers for the down running and colder temperatures coming on, now that it was later in the day. It would be dark in about an hour and a half. I put my headlamp on my head so I would be all ready. It was getting cold enough out that we wouldn't be making any more stops; we had to keep moving to stay warm. Our underneath layers were wet from perspiration and stopping for even a minute made it very uncomfortable.
An unfriendly dog chased us for a stretch, letting us know it didn't want us near its property. I was unhappy to have this happen on Forest Service land where wild animals should have been my biggest concern. My encounters with bears have always been less nerve wracking than this one with the unattended aggressive dog on public lands. The dog backed off when Ras hollered loudly at it, but continued to follow us for a short distance. There is a home in this area that sits way back off of the trail. We had heard a chainsaw running as we got close to this home on our way up the trail. The owner didn't seem to hear Ras hollering loudly at the dog, but luckily it ended up backing off. Next time we run that trail, we will have to bring our large brown bear spray canister with us, just in case.
The downhill grade was perfect for miles. When it got dark, I turned on my headlamp and watched the frozen ground sparkle in its light. The night running felt good and I was able to stay plenty warm enough. After several miles of forested downhill trail running, I began to feel strange. The scenery never changed and I couldn't see anything beyond the immediate light of my headlamp. I felt like I was in a tunnel and I verged on feeling something similar to vertigo. Soon the trail began working its way back through the canyon walls. The change in scenery and terrain helped me to feel normal again. I picked my way over the rocky trail and soon began seeing the lights from homes along the Okanogan River come into closer view. We were just about done with the descent, done with our run for the day.
We got back to our car and climbed inside. It was nice to feel the heat and put on some warm, dry clothes. We only had about 1/2 hour drive to get home, where we had a big pot of Tofu Roots Stew, waiting in the crock pot. Ras stoked up the wood stove and I served us up big bowls of steaming hot soup. Sitting down on the couch together, we both felt satisfied at a Thanksgiving perfectly celebrated.