All posts by Helene Lohr

5 ways to Keep Your Family Safe on High Country Winter Hikes

As we finally enjoy the snow we so rightly deserve it’s a good time to remember a few practical tips to keep us safe in this all beautiful white stuff!

Hopefully you’ve already figured out that taking a winter hike in the high country takes a bit more planning than a summer day hike, especially if you have little ones in tow. You already know to bring the right gear and check your weather forecasts – so I won’t belabor those points. (Not sure? Check past articles.) 

Here’s a couple tips about the worst winter offenders to help keep you and your little loved ones safe: 

1. Melt/Freeze. Teach your little ones the relationship between snow and ice and how to recognize changes that can signal danger. Just because you crossed that slope in the bright midday sun does not mean that it will be traversable in the late afternoon. The day(sun)/night(shade) melt/freeze cycle can turn friendly white powder into something slick and deadly in a matter of hours. As soon as that snow exits direct sun, watch out!  That also goes for crossing from open to tree covered trail- any area of shade is a potential skating rink in the right conditions!

Pause early in your hike to have your little ones test the tactile difference between shaded snow and sun illuminated slush to help drive the point home.

2. Stay awake and aware. “A little bit of ice” is nothing to scoff at – it becomes especially dangerous on the steep slopes of the high country, where an ice chute can turn you into a human pinball, and not in a good way.

Being alarmist about this (or any) risk can intimidate kids about winter hiking- instead of attempting to scare, I prefer to teach awareness and involve them actively in the process of taking care of our little hiking “tribe”: “This can be dangerous, so I’d like to ask you to help me look out for it as a team”. Involving them in the responsibility of taking care of the group does a lot to develop skills that they can use in later solo adventures.

3. Choose your trails wisely! Don’t assume that lovely summer hikes are going to be just as much of a pleasure in the winter… Some trails are seasonal for a reason! Just because you have hiked it a thousand times (in the summer) does not mean it is a safe trail in the winter! Consider level of exposure to the sun, recent weather conditions and elevation (amongst many other things) in making your choice of trail! 

4. Turn back if you encounter conditions beyond your experience. And keep a close tab on the energy levels, enthusiasm, gear and overall condition of any little ones in tow.

It’s not worth it to push it- most of the time you will probably squeak by, but don’t let that make you get cavalier- when the time comes, the cost can be far too high.  I remember one Ranger Patrol on Ramona Trail- an ‘easy’ hike made deceptively dangerous by a river of ice that had formed on the trail! If you and your “tribe” don’t have the experience or get to safely traverse the whole range of trail conditions, and double your efforts to get back home- get your butt out of there!

5. Navigation Skills. fresh snow leaves a lovely white blanket across the land… Obscuring  every single detail of the trail that once seemed so familiar. Don’t just head out on a wing and a prayer (“I’m a local- I don’t need a map!”). Make sure and bring a Topo map and the navigation skills to appropriately use it. (It never hurts to plan in navigational experiences for your little ones as well.) And don’t just assume that you can always just track your self back – new snowfall can cover up your shoe prints in a matter of minutes!

Now that I’ve been a Scrooge about all your wonderful winter plans, I want to encourage you to get out there and enjoy with your tribe- just do so with forethought and safety! Happy hiking! 

 

Winter Senses Meditation

It’s so easy to let the winter season bottle you up in your house in an odd mix of hibernation mode and cabin fever. But you don’t have to let winter hem you in.

Take some time to go outdoors and re-expand your world. After all, there are only so many board games you can play. Time outdoors has been shown over and over to be vital to our physical and mental health in ways we can’t yet understand and are only beginng to be able to measure.  

Winter is a great time for natural meditation (or just gathering your thoughts). To get back in touch with the rhythm of the seasons, I like to explore the world, focusing individually on each of my senses.

Each season has a unique set of impressions it leaves lingering on your skin, burned behind your eyelids, a faint trace of scent, a taste on your tongue. Each sense you have is a gift, so take the time to truly appreciate each one of them.

Listen

You say you can’t manage a woodland hike in this cold weather? You can barely make it out the door? Then walk just outside your front step tomorrow morning and take 30 seconds to do nothing but listen.

What do you hear? The crunch of your boots on snow. A bird call oddly muffled by the white blanket covering the landscape. The pattering drip of water melting off the trees? Take a deep breath. Take it all in.

Look

Take a walk through the pines. Leave your camera at home so you can see through your own eyes. What do you see?

The dapple of sunlight dancing its way through the branches? Early morning steam rising off the meadow where sun meets frost? Stillness interwoven with movement as birds dart their way between their refuges? Or maybe the clear bright stars of a winter night? Take a deep breath. Take it all in.

Taste

Every season has its own taste. The fresh young pine needles of the summer inevitably give way to winter’s sharp, dry tannins. Autumn’s fruity rose hips dry into tart little berries, just begging to be made into tea.

The world is there to be experienced — and there’s no experience quite like the crisp, clean taste of a new snowflake melting on your tongue.

Smell

My favorite reward of a hike in the mountains is the moment I take a deep breath and become aware of the fresh scent of pine and wet earth. Slowing down to enjoy the scents of the trail, my lungs seem somehow clearer, my mind brighter.

They say scents have the most direct connection to the emotional center of the brain — I guess that means that if you want to brighten your day, you should take the time to open up your nose first.

Feel

Winter definitely has its own feel. Stepping out into the wild, what will you feel?

The feathery brush of a snowflake against your cheek. The slippery lurch of ice underneath your feet. The crisp, pinching bite on the tip of your nose on a bitter cold night. The warmth of the fire embracing your body as you walk through the door.

Take a deep breath … and take it all in with a smile. Time in nature is time spent healing. 

So when winter comes, instead of complaining about the cold, go out and consciously revel in its crispness, its beauty, its sensations.

Passageways

Passageways are magical. 

Passageways call your attention to a shift, a transition, a ‘passage’ from one way of thinking, seeing, being to the next. 

We are continually flowing through these shifts every second of our days, but often it takes the physical symbol of a passage to bring it home, to make it real to us: like a real life tarot reading that tells us what we should already be aware of, but have chosen to overlook with our conscious mind. 

Passageways are that magical set of places where the conscious and subconscious intermingle, merge, and if you allow yourself to hover there (physically, spiritually, mentally) then you might just bathe yourself in the natural upwelling of inspiration and comprehension, the understanding of your purpose and place in the natural world beyond the domesticated role of “consumer”…

 

Just sayin’

Rewilding 101

 

In our every day lives of texting, Twitter, Instagram and Angry Birds, we often don’t take the time to peel our eyes away from our iPhones and notice the amazing natural world around us.

The modern media tends to over-dramatize being a part of your natural environment as a major effort. While mother nature can have a harsh side, you don’t have to run around naked eating bugs to help reconnect yourself to your wild side (unless you really want to!).  Start with some of these easy steps and I pretty much guarantee that you’ll find yourself thirsting for more of the great outdoors.

  1. Stargazing– long ago, the patterns of nature used to be the source of our stories- and our nightly entertainment. From Orion, the giant huntsman whom Zeus placed among the stars, to the Casseopia, the queen of the night sky, their sagas have been slowly replaced by “Breaking Bad” and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”.

Take a night to return to your roots. Get a hold of a book to help you identify the constellations. Then head out with a pile of comfy blankets and pillows to the back yard. Lay back and let your eyes wander amongst the stories of the heroes and villans of old, or challenge your family to come up with their own constellations, along with their unique sagas. (Although, from experience, this can get silly fast!)

  1. Firelit night. Use only candle or firelight after dark and give yourself the dual gift of a digital detox and a uniquely bonding experience with your loved ones. There’s nothing like gathering around the warm glow of a fire with your tribe of friends and loved ones.  As the warmth pulls you in closer, coversations flow more freely around a flickering flame, stories grow more meaningful and life seems somehow more real. (No, you are not weird for not having the TV buring bright holes in your retina like all your neighbors.) The campfire has been the most popular “Late Show” in human existence! (And, as a nerdy bonus, the red spectrum light from a fire doesn’t interfere with your production of the sleep hormone melatonin like bright electric light and mess with your stress, blood sugar and other hormone levels throughout the next day.)
  1. Gardening, Hunting and Gathering. Age old skills like fishing, hunting, wild food gathering and gardening are at the heart of what has made us human.

Which skill would you rather pass on to the next generation- stalking the gleaming grocery aisle and heating up the perfect package of Hamburger Helper, or knowing where and how to look for the fish in a river, or when to plant, how to nourish and harvest the perfectly ripened tomato or head of corn? Yoir kids should recognize what an actual potato plant looks like and know that trout doesn’t swim in prepackaged in plastic. Just because your parents didnt teach you doesn’t mean that you can’t learn and pass it on.

Don’t know where to start? As part of the rewilding rennaisance there are a bevy of amazing courses, meetups, clubs and gatherings that focus on helping you gain or improve traditional “primitive” and survival skills. This can be a good way to help yourself gain confidence in and reconnect with your natural skills.  Somewhat ironically, you can find most of these resources by doing a quick online search for that particular skill.

There are thousands more ways to reconnect with nature at home- we’ve barely scratched the surface. Take a moment to wake yourself from your digital daze and appreciate the natural world that surrounds you every day.  Not only will you come closer to your natural roots, but along the way you may discover a deeper connection with the loved ones and friends you share these experiences with.

A Wall of Green

If you’re like most of the populace, many of your trips into nature are characterized by toiling up a dusty path through an unidentifiable and somehow vaguely unsettling corridor of green.

Sadly, most domesticated humans have an appalling lack of understanding of their vegetal surroundings and may even feel threatened by their leafy neighbors. (“Is that thing poisonous???”) Even worse, we often pass down this ignorance (and fear) to our kids.

Want to end this environmental ignorance and help your little ones learn to relate to our photosynthesizing friends in an entirely new way? Well then, it’s time for you to get to know your wild green neighbors!
well informed nature walk can be one of the best ways to help your kids (and yourself) get to know the residents of your natural neighborhood. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your trip.
 
1. Knowledge is power! Take the time before you go to learn about your green neighbors. There are an amazing amount of resources out there- from Wikipedia, to books on local flora (check the library or Amazon), to meetup groups and outdoor schools with naturalist and wild foods walks.
 
2. Ask the right questions. With so much information out there it can seem overwhelming to boil it down.  Here are some good questions to get you started in understanding a plants’ place in his ecosystem:
-Where does your plant like to live? (And why?)
-Who are his usual neighbors?
-Who likes to eat or use him?
-(How) does he defend himself?
-How does he change throughout the year? (Flowers, fruiting, growth, deciduous…?)
-How have we humans interacted with (and depended upon) him over the millennia? (medicinal uses, food prep, as building or clothing materials…)
-What are his key identifying characteristics?
3. People remember (and respect) people. When working with young kids I’d recommend initially skipping the Latin names and instead focus on helping them to see the plants as separate people with different abilities, complex personalities (not all good or bad), and likes/dislikes.
Talking with my 4 year old niece might sound a little like this: “Miss Blackberry can be really prickly -if you move too fast around her she’ll scratch you with her thorns.  She likes to live with her feet in the water and take deep drinks so that she can make extra juicy berries.” 
 
4.  Respect plants’ boundaries (and protect yourself). Make sure your kids learn not to touch or taste without knowing “who” the plant is and what his temperament is.  Most plants have defenses to be aware of.
“Mr. Stinging Nettle’s hypodermic hairs sting invaders with painful, itchy toxins to keep animals (and you) from eating too much of his really nutritious leaves.”
Help your kids to understand that plant defenses are part of the natural environment -these plants are not “bad” for defending themselves, they’re just trying to take care of themselves.
5. Avoid black and white views. Describing a plant as all “good” or “bad”gets in the way of understanding the plant’s role in its neighborhood (ecosystem).  These “difficult” plants often also have a bounty of benefits- for you and for their green neighbors.
“Mr. Nettle can provide a whole bunch of nutrients- collect his newest leaves carefully with gloves, and cook them long enough to deactivate his sting- and you will get a really yummy green.”
So get out there and explore! Understanding a plants’ complex role in its natural neighborhood, and our relationship to it- helps your child begin to see themselves as a part of their natural world, not separate from their green neighbors.

What’s Eating You?

  Every day spent hiking out in our forest brings more mysteries to be answered. This week let’s explore some partially “parasitic” partnerships that have always fascinated me out on trail.

 

INSECT GALL:

Ever see a round woody ball growing out of a tree branch? Often it’ll have a random pattern of little holes dotting it’s smooth surface. You are looking at a bona-fide insect larvae condo! An “Insect Gall” is a custom construction project of living plant tissue with the resident insect playing lead contractor. In order to hijack plant growth to form galls, the insect must seize a time when plant cell division occurs quickly: in our part of the world, that means Spring!

The insect (and/or it’s larvae) feeds on the rapidly growing plant tissue while injecting chemicals to encourage further growth. Quickly growing (meristenatic) tissues like buds, bark, and leaves are most vulnerable to these little guys.

After the gall is formed, the insect larvae develop inside until fully grown. Galls provide the industrious little larvae with not only a 4-course buffet, but their own impenetrable fortress, protecting them from predators as they grow. When they are ready, they bore out an exit hole and venture out into the wide world.

Galls, especially those located In the woody portions of plants) also tend to be a rich source of concentrated tannins, which makes them a great medicinal resource as strong astringents. 

Although insect galls get bad raps for their role as “unsightly” tumors on plants, they are completely harmless. The insects are usually excellent caretakers and make sure that their construction projects do not threaten their hosts. Most species even provide an overall benefit for their host or local environment including quite helpful pollination services for the plants, and food sources for our beautiful birds and bats!

As a healthy bonus for those of us with a tendency for wildcraftin, the galls of many plants contain a high concentration of immune stimulating substances. but before you go out collecting, make sure that you have checked on the safety of the plant in question and thoroughly checked it for any unwanted denizens or harmful fungus, etc.

MISTLETOE:

Particularly noticeable in winter as an oddly green bushy clump high up in the barren branches of trees, Mistletoe is a (in)famous parasite that attaches itself to trees and shrubs, pirating water and nutrients from it’s host.

American mistletoe’s scientific name, Phoradendron, means “thief of the tree” in Greek. However, Mistletoe’s common definition as a tree-killing pest may be too simplistic a view. Mistletoe may take from the tree for its own survival, but it pays back to the local ecology in several unexpected ways.

Despite it’s nasty reputation, studies reveal that an abundance of mistletoe in a forest means that many more kinds and numbers of birds and critters can thrive there. An amazing variety of critters rely on mistletoe for their food, especially in winter. Animals from birds to squirrels, chipmunks, porcupines and even deer eat the leaves, tender young shoots and juicy berries, leaving behind mistletoe seeds in their droppings.

These seeds will again grow into mistletoe’s medusa-like masses of branching stems, providing excellent shelter and nesting sites for many animals. The northern spotted owl is always on the lookout for a nice mistletoe to settle down in. The caterpillar stage of several beautiful butterfly species also use mistletoe greenery as their shelter, and as their only food. Even better, Mistletoe flowers often provide the very first pollen available in the spring for extremely hungry honeybees and native bees.

Thus, although it can shorten the life of some trees, mistletoe can also have a very positive effect on on our forest, providing high quality nutrition and homes for a broad range of critters. So next time you get a chance, take another look at these “bad guys”.

Bring Him Home.

  It’s Friday afternoon. I hear the helicopter circling over my house in Fern Valley. As I reflexively check my phone for a Rescue Call out text, it dings and vibrates with 2 back to back texts. Lee and Les. ” Heads up” from both of them. I sigh, “Probably another climbing accident” I say to my empty kitchen. With the warm weather Tahquitz  rock is tempting a lot more people up into cool crisp air and stunning views.

Lee swings by to pick me up on his way to Humber Park. The news when we get there is not good. CDF has already lowered in an EMT who has confirmed it’s a fatality. It takes a while before we can get any more info. When we do, the day suddenly takes a turn for the worse. 

“Lucas… ” My face falls when I hear the name. A sharp breath in of recognition. A sinking twisting pain. oh. no. An uncomfortable silence as we all take a moment to absorb the news.  It’s one of our own, an experienced climber, a young Idyllwild local with a bright soul and a smile for everybody. 
After a long, drawn out wait for the coroner, we finally get the go ahead for a helicopter recovery hoist. It’s decided that Craig Wills and I will be sent in with a litter to package him up and bring him back. Les Walker, one of the best climbers on our team and a good buddy of Lucas takes me to the side and adds to my technical gear a few  “just in case items” help smooth the recovery of his dear friend. We push back our emotions, shoving them, struggling, down deep where they won’t get in the way- there will be time for tears later.

As we make the short drive down to Keenwild Helitack Lee casts a serious look my way. “Are you good to go on this?”. Lee’s sure of my technical skills, what he’s asking is if I want to emotionally take on the packaging of someone I know. I’ve been on several recoveries of strangers.This one is different. 

I sit and think for a second gazing into the distance . Dark clouds are gathering on the horizon, weather is coming in. Someone needs to do this, and soon. I have the skills and Lucas needs to come home.  “Yes. Yes, I’m good.”

I’ll be hoisting first in order to assess the situation and set up anchors for Craig if needed. I take the camera from coroner. After a quick briefing on the shots they will need me to document, I cross the helipad toward Star-9.

Our Pilot Kevin Boss and TFO (Technical Flight Officer) Manny greet us with a handshake and nod. A short and sweet  briefing, then I climb into the helicopter behind Craig. He takes the seat at the far end and immediately clips into the seatbelt. I swing around so I’m seated next to Manny, legs hanging out the edge of the helicopter. With a quick nod and a smile he clips me in to the hoist for safety. We check each others’ carabiners to make sure they are properly secured and locked. 

Within moments the bird lifts into the air and swings smoothly around to face North. Sitting on the edge of the deck, I have a perfect view of our mountain town gliding by below me. As we draw closer a calm focus washes over me. It’s go time. 

Kevin pulls the helicopter into a hover near the face of the rock. Manny makes eye contact with me and points downward. Hundreds of feet below I can make out the forms of four CDF crewmen bunched on a ledge. Just above is the fall zone and our subject. 

I check my harness again, rise to a stand with my feet pressed firmly on the skid. Manny takes my hand and places it on the Carabiner handle on his chest. I pivot around to face him and give him a nod. He nods back and starts carefully lowering me. 

Within a moment I’m over the edge into the open air. Slowly spinning I can see the small ledge spread out far below me. 

  
It’s surreal how beautiful the surroundings are. The sheer granite face of Tahquitz Rock is stained in dark streaks with thousands of years of rain flow. The rock is so massive it dwarfs you into insignificance. I glance at Suicide Rock looming across the valley, the gulf filled with deep green pine from wall to wall. Wind gusts swell in waves, then subside, bringing the dark clouds closer with every minute. 

I glance back down at the approaching ledge, readying myself to land upright and secure an anchor as quickly as possible. 

Suddenly I’m jerked to a stop. 

The ledge pulls sharply away as I pendulum, swinging backwards wildly as Kevin expertly peels the bird away from the face of Tahquitz. A sudden change in the wind has put the helicopter at risk of crashing into the rock. 

The air crew reels me back in. As Manny pulls me back into the helicopter I give him a thumbs up:  I’m good to go for another round. He swings his microphone up from his face to yell in my ear. “The wind’s too rough right now to get so close. We’re going to have to lower you in below the ledge. You’ll have to climb up.” I give him another thumbs up. 

Kevin edges the bird in again. I head out the door and Manny lowers me into the cold buffeting of the rotor wash. The trip down is short.  Before I know it my hand snags onto an outcropping about 40 ft below the ledge. I take time to secure a grip on the rough surface before I unclip from the hoist. 

Star-9 pulls away from the rock and circles the valley once before pulling into a closer hover. Kevin has managed to compensate for the roughening wind and maintain a stable position directly over the target ledge. Mountain flying is one of the most unpredictable and dangerous forms of piloting and Kevin is one of the best there is. Craig’s form appears at the door and swings down into the open air.  As he lowers, I begin to climb.

Once we are both on the ledge we briefly greet the CDF crew. With darker clouds gathering in the valley just below us, Star-9 wastes no time in lowering the litter. It pendulums its way to us. I manage to snag an edge and bring it in to the widest part of the ledge before unclipping it. Manny’s voice over the radio, “Those clouds are moving in. We’ll be back in got 20 minutes”. Star-9 heads back to Keenwild to conserve fuel. 

I climb alone up to site of the accident to take pictures of the subject for the coroner. Once I finish, Craig and the CDF crew make their way up with our packs. We work to quickly, yet carefully package our subject into the waiting litter. I pull the part of my mind that recognizes him back and shove it in a dark corner. Deal with it later. I’m focused on what needs to be done. Making sure that he has all of his gear, picking up his broken sunglasses and placing them gently by his side in the bagl. 

The helicopter is already hovering as we finish the last details of packaging. One last zip. I close my eyes for a second and breathe deep. The bag is closed, buckles locked, ready to go. 

Craig radios in to the bird “Ready to hoist”. Manny’s on it right away. The hoist swings precariously at the edge of our reach, then swings right in the sweet spot. Craig grabs it, the CDF crew holds up the spider and I clip it in. An exaggerated hand signal and the litter swings up and away with our subject. As it reaches the bird I pull the tag line and the helicopter swings to the South.  

I breath out a heavy sigh of deep relief. Lucas is going home. 

Within minutes Star-9 is back for us. A quick set of hoists and we’re safe back in the arms of the Aviation Unit. As we fly away I look out into the darkening pine covered valleys and say a quiet prayer in memory of Lucas.