Saturday, November 12, 2011

Cold air and snow brace us

Photo of lobster mushroom, by gabriel amadeus on Flickr Creative Commons license

Lately my mind has been consumed with foraging. I think of mushrooms and their fluted caps, rose hips swaggering on branches, bull-whip kelp in brash sections on the beach.
I know little about my topic, though. I look at many blogs, and I went chanterelle-hunting for the first time a few weeks ago. My knowledge is nascent, but I'm building on it.

The weather here in the lowlands of the Pacific Northwest is turning unpleasant for me, wet and full of leaf rot. The past few days have been dusk-dark at mid-day. They aren't just shorter since last week’s time change, but full of looming catastrophe in the hanging darkness and just-deferred downpour.

Walking in Seattle in the dim noonday, taking care not to slip on damp leaves piled along the sloping sidewalks, I think of Snoqualmie Pass and the Cascades. As of this morning, they have received fresh snow and an order to don tire chains.

The air at the Pass, I know, is brisk and cleansing to the lungs. Looming mountains lift the eyes into clear air or air hazed by snowfall. One feels the elevation of the barometric pressure, and steps with energy on snowshoes.

Sometimes the air and the snow are the cold water in which we can swim.

I look forward to diving into this land, to finding the rose hips and making a syrup to pour over cake -– to eating that cake and making other starches from chestnuts. 

To gathering. It is endless, the possibilities.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Apple-picking days alternating with dark

Photo by VIUDeepBay on Flickr Creative Commons license.

Days in fall in Seattle are like an Appaloosa horse’s hide: They can be light -- but often they occur in great muddy dapples that obscure the bright, making their own pattern.
That's putting a pretty reading on it, though. What often happens is that I wake either thrilled by sunlight or lulled by gray. And sometimes the gray just makes a day in which it’s hard to be alert or even to have bright and clear eyes.
Probably that’s why I like cold water: It jolts me. I rise from the waters bright-featured, clear-headed. Sunlight in a gray place does that, too.
When in southern California, I’ve often thought that sunlight was excessive. All Pacific Coast weather is moody in its way, utterly different from the East Coast weather -- which follows its course through various seasons. Colors in the East are often vivid and primary.
That said, winter in the Northeast isn’t really a primary color -– it can be midnight dark, or display the furrowed clouds of expected snow. But it’s very often sunny, bright days.
I think that’s it: I like the bright, earned days of apple-picking time. I like them sharp as a Honey Crisp apple, with the same tang.
We have had some of those days in Seattle lately. Like the Appaloosa’s hide, they are variegated. Several dark, slogging days in a row precede the bright jewels that seem to last long.
I am glad for the variety, so far.
It may be time to swim again. If last year I swam on January 1 – which I did -– it can be done again. We will see. It’s always time to push off into the challenge.

Friday, October 14, 2011

53F in the early fall darkness

Photo of Juanita Beach Park in Kirkland, WA, by heystax, Flickr Creative Commons license.
One can only dive into cold water so many times and still find it surprising, right?

When nearly warm air was all around (this is Seattle, so I won’t say balmy), emptying myself into a cold body of water was no sweat, literally. It was also relatively pleasant.

Since the weather has turned to chilly and dark, it’s no longer a snap.

As I had last immersed in Lake Washington 10 days prior, I was getting antsy.

Plus, I knew that a friend recently had acquired a wetsuit. The accompanying rubber gloves, he complained, didn’t keep his hands warm. Wow, I thought: If gloves don’t do the trick, am I really thinking of jumping?

I was.

Once I was standing on the dock in Kirkland, I was no longer certain.

There I was, standing on a dock's rough wood in 53 Fahrenheit weather in the early fall darkness.

In two weeks, the dock had changed from busy to empty. The yachts were gone, taken to some warmer spot. From the beach came the wild shouts of a three-year-old boy with his father, as they ran sprints on the sand.

For a moment I thought, well, this is crazy. The night was clear, and colder than usual. It had the hollow-ness of late fall and winter. It had the darkness of Northwest wet season.

Even as I considered turning back, settling on the bench and re-donning my socks, I thought: No, I don’t want to sit at fireplaces all the time. I don’t want the warmth that seeps in and slows my taking chances.

“You must jump in,” I thought. If I didn't do it, I wouldn’t want to take risks -- to leave my warmth, my settledness, my tea with warm blankets.

They’re all good things, don’t get me wrong. But I have to feel the rawness of wind sometimes. I have to take the jump.

So I pushed off from the dock, flailed in dark space for a second, felt myself plunge into the water.
On the dock, I had thought: It may be colder than you’re expecting.

The water was shockingly cold. I thrashed the ten or eleven feet to the metal ladder, feeling that my arms were slower than usual to hit and sink into the water.

Hypothermia wasn't imminent -- but I was more than ready to get out quickly.

The air above the ladder felt almost tropical.

As I sat on the bench and flicked off moisture, I felt indomitable.

This was the me that jumps off docks into cold water.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Vancouver: A nice break, and reason to clean out the closets

Photo of Stanley Park Sea Wall, Vancouver, B.C., by SqueakyMarmot, on Flickr Creative Commons.

My recent trip to Vancouver: A change in pace, and a reason to come back and clean out the closets. Good to be rousted out of the slowing habits, the routine that sometimes includes procrastination.

On a trip, we do everything we plan to do (if our expectations are reasonable) putting off nothing. What we’re doing is simple: there are no extras, no requirements, no taxes (other than for sales).

Back in life-land, it’s nice to keep an edge to things if possible.(This is said while acknowledging the benefits of electricity, Internet, warm clothes for cold weather, running water, modern hiking shoes, and other frills of the industrialized world.)

Still, there’s an excitement to living without those.

For a few days, I lived deep in woods in northwest Montana, 60 miles from a paved road. We were without electricity and the Internet (at a time of dot-com explosion), and we bathed in a river fed by snow melt.

We filled lamps with kerosene, received groceries hauled by mules (a luxury, even though we couldn’t have bananas (easily bruised) or as many green vegetables as packaged pastas), and delicately fried trout caught in the river.

We were in a national wilderness area, and this was a U.S. Forest Service station. 

Coming from New York City, I knew how rare this was -- but I didn’t want to stay.

The work involved using non-mechanized tools -- cross-cut saws and hatchets -- to clear trails of downed trees on steep hillsides, and often involved hiking nearly 12 miles a day on hills. Each "week we labored 10 days, then received four days off. Many of the other workers used weekends to hike up mountains in search of fire-observatory views.

But I was soft. I missed the Internet and my cell phone. I missed baths that were not in the river. I liked thinking, and writing, more than I liked producing change with my hands.

So, I departed. I returned to civilized outer-world Montana. Eventually I went back to another city, Chicago.

In the end, though, Chicago was a bit too far from the deep forests for me. The city was well-planned -- a bit too much, for me. Its only wildness lay in Lake Michigan and in winter winds. I could stand at the lake's edge, but not sail across its surface. There were no ferries, no boats for those who don't spend or have boat-owning friends.

These days, I am trying to keep myself less often in the overheated, overly comfortable rooms of life.

Testing ourselves, I think, is the best way to experience more of the world. If I only wanted the basic necessities, I wouldn't experience the back country of anywhere, from the U.S. and Canada to Bolivia or Russia. It’s the best way to know what others experience.

With that in mind, I’m sharing a list of things I find thrilling:

Going without a jacket until it’s truly cold

Cross-country skiing deep into quiet woods

Standing among northern spruce and other evergreens

Spending time in northern places: Alaska, upper British Columbia, the tops of all the Canadian provinces. Montana. North Dakota.

The snowiest places, and among people who move to these places. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Duluth.

When a city’s power is out from a storm and people walk and talk peacefully

The lull after a snowstorm

Bayou country and the Everglades

Diaries and books about pioneers, homesteaders, and explorers

Edward Hoagland’s books about the renegades who lived in far northern British Columbia when he was there in the early 1960s

Spending time at the edge of a continent

Swimming in cold water

What are the things that thrill you?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Foreign country, foreign beach, in massively cold water

Photo of English Bay, Vancouver, off Stanley Park, by SqueakyMarmot on Flickr Creative Commons license.

Nearly brought to tears, I was, by the Strait of Georgia.
Shed my socks and sneakers on the gray-sand beach. It was the texture of flour with a bit of water and milk added, there at Stanley Park on Vancouver’s watery edge.

I plunged in a foot and felt the grip -- the absolute seizure -- of skin, bones, and all, by the cold depths.

The truth is, the Strait was no colder than the Puget Sound. I simply didn’t have a friend to egg me on, as I do at home in Seattle, and I knew that I'd left my Vancouver hostel already: If I dove, I'd need to make the 4-hour train ride home to Seattle in damp duds.

I was tired from sleeping poorly at a couch-surf, and sad because a very dear friend had just returned to the airport and onward to New York. I was alone in a foreign country, on a foreign beach, standing in massively cold water.

I watched my ankles in the clear depths, and moved forward a bit in the sand. Unlike Seattle beaches, this one had no pebbles to cut into my feet, which should have helped -- but the water was cold and seemingly bent on murder. I felt mortality.

All of a sudden, I lost the drive. I had been walking in sunshine along Stanley Park’s seawall, looking at the funny folded-umbrella shape of black cormorants on cliffs and down on rocky points in the sea, nodding at passing walkers and cyclists, gazing across the silvery waters towards the mountains of the separate district of North Vancouver.

On this particular day, I wasn’t ready for the mortality. I wanted the sunshine.

Usually, I would have driven myself to dip fully, to feel that excitement of being entirely wet, and the warmth that comes from no longer being half in one state and half in another. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to submerge – knowing, as I did, that I’d end up chilly and remaining soggy.

Strangely, though, the feeling of dread passed quickly. If there’s one thing cold water does, it lends a feeling of resilience: “If I can withstand that, I can do anything!” At least, it does for me.

I liked being in Vancouver, looking at the cousin to my regular views in Seattle. It was as if I’d started out looking at water from Seattle, and suddenly the picture slid over a bit further – and I was looking from further north.

It was a bit eerie, but wonderful. I’ve never vacationed anywhere that was in some ways a continuation of my own region, like a chance to learn more about it. It was like meeting the cousin of a dear friend, and finding that they have the same laugh and give their hair the same part. I kept looking at pewter water extending to distant hills, and boats in the marinas, thinking to myself: “Hey, hey! More of that! More of that thing I like!”

So, no swimming this time in Vancouver. But next time, when I have shower access, and possibly a wet-suit like the resident I saw at the city's Jericho Beach -- I'm up for it.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The water was fiercely oceanic, bracingly cold

Photo of Seward Park Beach in Seattle by Chas Redmond, Flickr Creative Commons license.

Came here to the lake's east side cocky, post-Puget Sound popsicle toes of two days prior.

That earlier water had exhilarated me. It was so fiercely oceanic, so bracingly cold that we emerged with pinkish-red skin. Our epidermis needed to work -- skin's version of rubbing sticks together -- to re-kindle our body warmth. We were thrilled, and warmed happily in the sun. The outside temperature was mild in comparison.

After that, I figured Lake Washington would be relatively easy. Or at least, easier.

Today was sunny and sharp, but not chilly fall, yet.

Crossing the 520 bridge from the city, the sky and expanse of the lake were blue, the water a deep but limpid navy -- not somber as on some days. Bright motes bounced around the bus's vinyl interior.

In Kirkland, the lake-front is a narrow pebbled beach and a promenade where people walk wearing saris, head scarves, and the usual.

I was water-bound. Shucked shoes, stored other items near a friendly retiree from Cle Elum.

Walking to water, I realized that the pebbles at water's edge were different from other beaches' -- they were continuous, compact, and dug into my feet with insidious variety. 

Jumping from the dock it was, then. The quick plunge is actually my preferred method: into the sweet cool sluice of water, quickly. When it's not the Sound, or the lake in January, the water temperature isn't shocking, but nice, I feel.

I found a span of dock with a ladder on its side. Then I stood, jiggled my feet in nervous anticipation. Felt the audience of people sitting across the water, on benches under spruce trees in the park.

Then I jumped. Felt the water, delicious, cover my head. Felt that fall, the Jacques Cousteau-like propulsion. I felt unable to stop further immersion and unwilling to slow it. 

It was a wondrous human moment of letting go.

The water wasn't cold once I was in. I swam breast-stroke, against waves, and entered the marina. I passed docks, went toward the beach, and returned to my original dock. 

I felt like wondrous swim pioneer, like a Channel crosser.