Day One: Mount Rose to Mud Lake

28 June 2015: Mount Rose TH to Mud Lake. 8.4 miles.

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Packing and snacking (note the apples on the car). Mt. Rose in the background.

The Tahoe Rim Trail is probably the most kid- and dog-friendly trail I’ve hiked. Most of the trail is open to mountain bikes, and the entire trail is shared with equestrians. This means lots of easy grades. The trail is incredibly well-maintained (shout-out to all the trail crews we met! thanks!). In addition to being pretty easy terrain, there are lots of options for resupplies and bail-out points. This is not a remote backcountry trail; you cross a lot of roads and are never too far from a town.

The biggest challenge on the TRT is water, especially after several years of west-coast drought. We planned two water caches to get us through the longest dry stretches: one at the Brockway Summit trailhead and one at the Kingsbury North trailhead. By stashing a few gallons at these points we ensured that the furthest we would have to carry all of our water was only 12 miles, rather than 20. For our speed, that made the difference between one day’s worth of water and two days’ worth! A faster hiker could plan around the stretches and bomb through them in a day, but that wasn’t really an option for us, especially since we had one person carrying the bulk of the water for four beings.

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A glimpse of the lake (Tahoe, that is).

We decided to start with one of the most spectacular sections of trail, the Mt. Rose Wilderness. This stretch is high and dry. We hiked the highest point on the trail, Relay Peak (elev. 10,338), our first day out. For the rest of you flatlanders out there, I’d recommend starting with a lower-elevation section, or camping near the trailhead the day before in order to acclimate. 10,000 feet may not seem like much, but for my sea-level-born husband, it was too much. PPL has learned the hard way (several times!) that he is very altitude sensitive. If we’d been smart, we would have reserved a campsite at the Mt. Rose campground in advance to give our bodies a chance to transition from sea level to Sierra altitudes. Unfortunately, it was a Saturday night and the Mt. Rose campground was full; we managed to snag a room at a Reno Motel 6 instead. (Tip to those who travel with dogs: Motel 6 has a universal “Dogs Stay for Free” policy.) Next time, I’ll plan our first night in advance.

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Making dinner with a little helper.

Because we slept in town and still had to cache our Brockway Summit water in the morning, we didn’t arrive at the trail head until almost noon. A typically late start for us; thank goodness for long, midsummer days! By the end of the day, PPL was nauseous, headachy, and pretty much useless. It drizzled intermittently all afternoon. Despite all that, it really was a glorious day. We had amazing lake views all day, we encountered snow drifts around Relay Peak, and marvelled at all the wildflowers. After we set up the tent, PPL crawled inside and left me to do pretty much all the chores. I cooked a dinner he couldn’t eat, but at least SB was thrilled by black beans and couscous. Apparently, babies’ hiker-hunger sets in early!

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Galena Falls

Mud Lake gets a bad rap as being a gross, silty pond. I honestly didn’t think it was all that bad compared to a lot of the ponds I’ve seen. According to our guide book, the water at Gray Lake, which is down a short alternate trail, is much nicer; it seems a lot of TRT thru-hikers make the detour and camp at Gray Lake instead. Mud Lake was shallow, for sure, but the water, once filtered, was fine (if I were using chlorine or iodine drops, I might feel differently!). Klein and SB both had a great time splashing in the shallows. Plus, we had the whole place to ourselves!

Water note: We actually encountered way more water today than we anticipated. Galena Falls was gushing gloriously, and the spring at the junction of the TRT and the Incline Lake Trail was also running nicely.

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We Made It! (A TRT Teaser…)

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Marlette Lake, snuggled up against Lake Tahoe.

(…or should that be, “A TRTeaser”? Terrible.)

Okay, I’ve actually been home for a couple weeks, but I’ve been feeling a little recalcitrant about writing. It’s hard to sit yourself down in front of a computer when you’ve been in seemingly constant motion for several weeks.

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A real hiker, with poles no less!

Our trip was both super-challenging and super-fun, as is the case with most worthwhile endeavours. I did indeed manage to hike all 170 miles of the Tahoe Rim Trail with a toddler on my back (except for the sections he walked himself!). There were moments of panic, melt-down, and utter exhaustion, but in the end we all emerged unscathed, not to mention stronger and happier than when we began.

Over the course of 16 days, we only lost two water bottles, two pairs of sunglasses, and, ahem, an entire stuff sack full of clothes (more on that later). We ate lots of cheese and chocolate, went swimming more than a few times, and encountered more mosquitoes than I thought existed on the West Coast.

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Pre-trip planning.

We got hot, we got cold, we even got hailed on a couple times (thank goodness for umbrellas). We met some truly awesome people, and we never ran out of water (or diapers)! Starting Monday, I’ll be posting a day-by-day account of our thru-hike, complete with photos and maybe even a gear list, so please do check back. Happy August!

Gone Hiking!

This weekend, I (along with toddler, dog, and intrepid partner) will be heading off to attempt a thru-hike of the Tahoe Rim Trail, a 170-mile loop around the lake. We’ve been talking about this trip for a long time. We did an exploratory section hike last September and fell in love with the Sierra, how it manages to feel at once both stark and lush, alpine lakes tucked away among soaring peaks.

I say “attempt” because we honestly don’t know whether or not we can do the whole thing, but we’re gonna try! The ongoing drought makes us nervous; fingers crossed that no more water sources dry up before we get there. We anticipate taking about 15 – 18 days to complete the whole trail, but we’ve given ourselves a window of 3 weeks. And we’ve made some alternate plans in case we need to bail.

I don’t expect to have much of a chance to post photos or updates until we’re back in civilization in mid-July. I’m a luddite with a hand-me-down Blackberry and a point-and-shoot camera. I’ll try to post some pretty things along the way, but our town stops/resupplies are going to be pretty complicated with a 16-month-old and a dog!

Ten Things to Buy (Over and Over Again) at Trader Joe’s

The Everywhereist recently wrote about the “weekly idiocy” of her efforts to grocery shop at Trader Joe’s. I can sympathize. I shop at TJ’s on an embarrassingly regular basis. For the first time in my life, I live in a metro area that doesn’t have a single food co-op, or anything remotely resembling a co-op. There’s not much in the way of agriculture in the Las Vegas valley, so the “farmers markets” are a bit of a joke. There are a few brave farmers hereabouts–I’ve had a CSA share with Meadow Valley Farm for a while now–but the farmers markets are largely devoted to the sale of t-shirts, smoothies, gourmet dog biscuits and the like. Le sigh.

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The sketchiest thing I’ve ever brought home from the grocery store. Sliced open, taped shut, stocked anyway. Thanks Sprouts!

Other than TJ’s, my primary supermarkets are Whole Paycheck and Sprouts, both of which I’ve been trying my best to boycott, the former because of that sh*t they pulled giving out sandwiches to the Nat’l Guard in Baltimore. Which side are you on, Whole Foods? Well then. And the latter because they just plain SUCK. I don’t know if this is true of other Sprouts stores, but the one conveniently located within walking distance of my house has to have the worst track record for mishandled, damaged, and expired product of any grocery store I’ve ever shopped at. Ever. I find more damaged crap at Sprouts than I do at dented can stores. Example: package of breakfast cereal sliced open with a boxcutter, then TAPED SHUT, and the put on the shelf for sale. WTF. I had a similar, messier experience with a bottle of honey. Seriously, it’s like the words “cull” and “rotate” just don’t exist in the Sprouts lexicon. Having stocked my share of groceries over the past decade, I feel qualified to say: Get your act together, Sprouts. 

Anyway, I buy a lot of food at Trader Joe’s. I realize Joe’s is not morally superior to my other grocery options, but it’s the best I got. Yes, their produce mostly sucks. Their bread mostly sucks. Their meat and seafood probably suck, too, but I don’t eat meat and seafood. The trick to shopping at TJ’s is to embrace the deliciousness of packaged foods (something I never, ever, in a million years thought I’d hear myself say. Clearly, this is the backpacker in me talking…). Find your fresh stuff somewhere else. Join a CSA, find a real farmers market, grow it yourself. Heck, go to Whole Foods and pay a premium for shiny fruits and veggies in beautiful displays. At least they know how to cull.

So, without further ado, my personal top ten reasons for shopping at Trader Joe’s, in no particular order:

  1. Tea Tree Tingle Shampoo and Conditioner. This is basically Giovanni at a slightly more sane price point. 16 oz for $3.99? Yes, please.
  2. Canned Corn. I know, it sounds ridiculous. It’s not like I eat a lot of canned corn. However, I’m pretty sure this is the only canned corn worth eating. It’s crispy and it’s sweet and it contains–lo and behold–NOTHING BUT CORN!
  3. South African Style Potato Chips. Mysteriously delicious. Think barbecue flavour without the cloying sweetness. I am a smoked paprika fiend, so these are kind of my ultimate chip. Also, they are thin, which is a nice respite from all the hippie-ass thick-cut chips which seem to be all you can find at natural food stores nowadays. Are thick cut chips more “natural” than thin ones?
  4. 2-Buck Chuck (okay, it’s $3.00 here). For those of us who couldn’t survive the summer without sangria and kalimotxo, a decent cheap wine is a must. This is the decentest, cheapest wine there is. I like the Shiraz. Shrug.
  5. Giant boxes of Barbara’s Shredded Oats. When I eat cereal, it’s Shredded Oats, oops, I mean “Morning Oat Crunch”. Whatever it’s called, it’s delicious, and Joe sells 24 oz boxes for cheaper than the 16 oz boxes at other supermarkets.
  6. So. Many. Cookies. This is dangerous territory for a little Dutch girl. I could live on cookies. Having access to windmill cookies year-round, not just at Christmas—this is either a very good thing or a very bad thing.
  7. Greek Kalamata Extra Virgin Olive Oil. This stuff is legit. Just ask the folks at Truth in Olive Oil (http://www.truthinoliveoil.com/2013/08/trader-joes-extravirgins-and-floozies).
  8. The Cheese Department. The only place in the entire state of Nevada where I can reliably find Cabot cheddar (okay, besides Costco). The “Traditional French Brie” is also pretty darn good, if not really traditional (it’s pasteurized—thanks, FDA). Best prices anywhere for Reggiano and Roquefort.
  9. Cranberry Juice (warning: TMI ahead). Ever since undergoing major (and life-saving) surgery, my body has been flirting with UTIs. Avoid catheters like the plague, folks. But, this stuff helps! It’s delicious because it’s not from concentrate, unlike all the other, overpriced “100% cranberry juice” on the market.
  10. Pound-Plus Chocolate Bars. Seriously, 17.6 oz of Belgian chocolate for FIVE BUCKS?! How can you say no to that? The hazelnut version has preserved my morale and sanity countless times.

Runners-up: sardines at a reasonable price (my dog’s favorite treat); whole wheat couscous (backpacking staple); the single-serving instant coffee packets with cream and sugar (I prefer my coffee black, but if I liked cream and sugar, I would take this backpacking all the time, because it tastes surprisingly similar to actual coffee); the endless variety of trail mixes, most of which actually taste good and aren’t half-raisin or half-peanut.

I still don’t have a decent bulk section to shop, or a decent source of fresh breads, or many options for local produce. Or meat. Or dairy. But at least I’ve got my convenience foods sorted. Viva Las Vegas, indeed.

Wrappin’ Love: An Ode to Wovens

Yep, stash shot. I've actually added (eep) two wraps since this photo was taken.

Yep, stash shot. I’ve actually added (eep) two wraps since this photo was taken.

I told myself it would never come to this. When my son was born I told myself one was plenty. Now I look at other people’s stash shots and tell myself, “At least I don’t have twenty!”

I like to think of myself as a minimalist. But wraps bring out the stuff-lust in me. They’re beautiful, they’re useful, and they help me feel like a skillful parent.

I’m a pretty ecumenical babywearer. I’ve buckled and ring-slinged (slung?) and mei tai’d. But, man, do I love woven wraps. Here’s the thing about wrapping: once you know how to wrap your kids, you can carry them in anything. A bed sheet, a beach towel, a tablecloth. Wrapping is a skill. Wrapping has changed the way I think about parenting. Wrapping is not about buying more and more stuff to solve every little problem. Wrapping asks, what can we do with what we have?

Mexican rebozos, African kitenges — all over the world, through the ages, women have been finding ways to get stuff done while holding their kids. We don’t need plastic buckles and foam padding to do it. And we sure as heck don’t need bouncy chairs.

Of course, we also didn’t need $$$ organic-cotton purpose-woven imported-from-Europe wraps. My wraps are a first-world hobby with universal roots. Every time I pet a wrap and think, “Wow, I want that one!” I recognize my privilege. I have the resources — the time, the money, the technology — to hunt down these wearable works of art. But it doesn’t take money to bond with a baby. All it takes is a heart (and maybe a simple piece of cloth).

Soren's first backpacking trip, June 2014, Dixie Nat'l Forest in Utah. Wrap: Vatanai Aialik

Stealth Baby’s first overnight hiking trip, June 2014, Dixie Nat’l Forest in Utah. Wrap: Vatanai Aialik

Big Red Part Two: Alternatives

In my last post, I talked about the pros and cons of carrying spawn in the Osprey Poco. What follows is the article I wish I’d been able to read before buying a frame carrier. It is possible to hike without a frame carrier, even with a toddler, no matter what the REI sales associate might tell you. Regardless of how many miles you want to hike or how many days you plan on being out, it’s worth considering a lightweight alternative, especially if you already have an everyday child carrier that you like to use at home and around town. (Watch out, folks, lots of links below.)

Bloo Kangaroo Kanga XT Sport

Weight: 19.3 oz  |  Capacity: one spawn

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Our SSC has been dubbed “Fa-Fa” by SB–can you guess why?

This is an amazing soft-structured carrier (SSC), at least for me and Stealth Baby. It’s been said before that SSCs are like jeans. They fit everyone differently, and you’ve got to shop around if you want a perfect fit. It’s so true. Several SSCs came and went before I discovered Bloo Kangaroo. I’d all but given up on SSCs by the time I got to try one of these on.

I have a short torso and a small waist; a lot of SSCs are “dad-sized” and threaten to swallow me whole. I also like to carry Stealth Baby up pretty high on my back, with the waistbelt somewhere between my ribcage and my navel, while most SSCs are designed to rest on your hips. In addition to sitting at my natural waist, the Kanga has fantastic, low profile foam padding that lays flat on your shoulder and doesn’t compress the way cheaper poly-fill padding can. The Sport Mesh option makes the Kanga a bit more breathable, lighter weight, and quicker-drying. I would love to see a version that utilizes the same 3D spacer mesh on the shoulder straps and waistbelt. The cotton canvas gets sweaty and takes a long time to dry out.

I was hesitant to get a Kanga of my own, because they’re a step up in price from the more readily-available Ergo, Lillebaby, etc. What makes the Kanga worth it is that it’s a custom-crafted carrier sized specifically for you and the kid you’re carrying. Kristen offers standard, petite, and plus-sized shoulder straps and waistbelts, as well as cinchable versions so you can share with a partner (the regular versions are adjustable, but the cinching versions offer a wider range). Also, it’s made in the US by a small producer. My kind of gear.

The XT is a toddler-sized carrier, designed to fit children approximately 12 months and up. Bloo Kangaroo also offers infant-sized and preschool-sized options. Offering different sizes means that even as your baby grows you’ll be able to find a carrier wide enough to offer knee-to-knee support* and tall enough to prevent wiggly spawn from leaning out. SB has come to like “Fa-Fa” (it has a foxy on it!) quite a lot. Nine times out of ten, this is the carrier he asks for if he wants to go up (at home, I prefer wraps, so he doesn’t always get his way).

Montbell Trail Lumbar Pack 7 

Weight: 11.3 oz  |  Capacity: 7 liters / 427 cubic inches

IMG_3266This Montbell lumbar pack is a little overbuilt for my taste; the zippers are pretty bulky, and I find the top handle and the interior organizer pockets to be unnecessary. However, it’s the best I’ve found in terms of its space:weight:dollar ratio. It’s nicely padded, so it sits comfortably at my waist and I can put oddly-shaped objects in it without feeling them poke through. I’m able to fit a one-liter Platypus, a basic first-aid kit, a 3-oz tube of sunscreen, and a rain jacket, plus my wallet, keys, and phone. Small capacity encourages efficient packing! An added bonus is that the front lash-straps are the perfect place to stow our umbrella when it’s not in use.

ZPacks Multi-Pack

Weight: 2.9 oz  |  Capacity: 3.5 liters / 214 cubic inches

IMG_3267 I adore this little pack. I’m always impressed with the build quality and the level of innovation in ZPacks products. The Multi-Pack can be slung over one shoulder, worn crossbody, or clipped around one’s waist (or used as a lid for any ZPacks backpack, and many others). Super versatile and ridiculously light, because it’s made out of cuben fiber. Also, waterproof!

Because this is a pretty unstructured satchel, I use it to haul lightweight-but-bulky stuff. Namely, in my case, a few diapers and some wipes.

euroSCHIRM Light Trek Umbrella

Weight: 9.8 oz

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fully equipped

One of the most appealing features on the big, heavy kid carriers is the built in sun-shade. I’ve solved that problem by carrying an umbrella. Keeps the rays of both me and SB and weighs less than 10 oz. Moreover, it works at least as well as the clip-on rain cover that comes with the Osprey, and eliminates the need for me to carry a separate rain shell for myself. (SB and I share an oversized Frogg Toggs jacket. If we ever find ourselves in a really rainy climate, I’ll probably invest in a KinderRain Poncho, which is specifically designed for babywearing in wet weather; it has two head-holes and two hoods!)

BOTTOM LINE

My total carrying capacity with this set-up is only about 10 cubic litres. That’s about the equivalent of a very small daypack. This allows me to go on short solo day hikes with SB; for longer trips I rely on my partner to sherpa most of the gear, but I’m able to carry the essentials that I’d need in an emergency. I like to be prepared for those rare scenarios where we might get separated from each other. The benefit, of course, is that the entire set-up weighs 43.3 oz; that’s less than 2 ½ lbs! We’re talking about a 5 lb reduction in total weight over the Osprey, not to mention improved comfort and fit (some people find frame carriers very comfortable–I do not).

One last point: We use “Fa-Fa” (our Kanga XT) on a daily basis at home. It is comfortable, familiar, and part of our daily routine, which makes it an ideal travel companion, as it helps ease the transition into new environments.


*The importance of knee-to-knee support? To be brief, optimal hip development. If you’d like more info on babywearing ergonomics, check out this brochure from the Babywearing Institute. Using a carrier that positions the child in a full spread-squat is most important for the first 6-12 months, but even as the child gets older and heavier, a carrier with a wide base will provide better support and greater comfort.

Note: Some people will tell you knee-to-knee is essential; others will tell you it’s ideal, but that any carrier, as long as it’s safe, is better than no carrier. Frame carriers like the Osprey are prime examples of carriers that do not provide knee-to-knee support. However, they are also not intended for use with tiny infants or newborns. If you are dedicated to only using truly ergonomic carriers for your spawn, then frame carriers are out.

I’m not going to weigh in on the ergonomics debate today, but I will say, little ones seem not to give a hoot about proper support. If it were up to Stealth Baby, he’d pick Big Red every time because it allows him to sit up very high and gives him more room to wiggle around. These days, I keep Big Red hidden in a closet because otherwise SB begs to go for a ride, and I would much rather he go up in something lighter, and less likely to knock dishes off the kitchen counter, a la the proverbial bull in the china shop.

Big Red: A Love-Hate Relationship (Part One)

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Kelso Dunes: a classic hike in Mojave National Preserve.

Last summer, once Stealth Baby learned to sit up on his own, I started shopping for a baby backpack. You know, one of the big framed carriers that looks like a cross between an external frame pack from the ‘70s and a howdah the Maharajah might ride in. I quickly narrowed my options down to either the Deuter Kid Comfort III Child Carrier or the Osprey Packs Poco Premium Child Carrier. In a moment of true lesser-evilism I opted for the Osprey Poco. “It has the features I want,” I reasoned, “and it’s a smidge lighter and cheaper than the Deuter!” It was exciting. For months it served as our primary hiking carrier. Chafes and bruises on my hips be damned, I made miles in that thing (as best one can when accompanied by a creature who pretty much always wants to eat or poop).

Carrying Big Red, as I’ve dubbed the Osprey, makes me feel a little like Cheryl Strayed in Wild. I end up with chafes on my hips and bruises on the bottom of my ribcage. After a long day, I can feel my hips and knees creaking a little. For someone who has spent years carrying with ultralight gear (think 1-lb backpack with only a foam sleeping pad as a frame), these kid carriers feel decidedly retrograde.

Modern backpacks don’t weigh eight pounds and they don’t boast gigantic external frames. While the rest of the backpacking world has moved forward and lightened up, kid carriers seem stuck in the past. Like, 30 years in the past. Except for the extra bells and whistles, Big Red looks and feels an awful lot like the backpack my mom carried me in when I was Stealth Baby’s age. Unfortunately, between the niche audience for these packs and the stringent safety guidelines for baby products, I don’t expect anyone to be revolutionizing their designs anytime soon.

Despite the discomfort, Big Red has been helpful in a lot of ways. It was a relief not to have to fuss with a wrap or a mei tai on the trail; even after six months of practice, I sometimes felt completely useless when it came to wrapping a writhing baby, especially on uneven terrain or in inclement weather. (Okay, even after sixteen months of practice I still feel useless sometimes!)
The built-in storage on the Osprey meant that I could carry all the Stuff my knees could handle, and then some. We brought mondo dipes. Extra clothes. Changing pad. Extra wipes. Soap. Heavy steel water bottle (“But it’s the one the baby knows how to drink out of and it’s not plastic!!”). A BOARD BOOK. Et cetera. Over time, we learned what we need and what we can do without. Stealth Baby has learned how to drink out of a Platypus so we don’t need to bring a special bottle for him. He’s learned to ask for potty (most of the time), which has cut down on diaper usage in a big way (even so, we always have back-up!). We’ve memorized a lot of books and songs. Instead of playing with toys, we find funky sticks as we go, pick flowers, and birdwatch.

As we carry less, Big Red feels less necessary. There are still occasions when we opt of the Osprey; for instance, if we’re traveling with someone who’s not an experienced babywearer but might be willing to carry the baby for a little while. Also, the ventilated back makes Big Red a good option for extremely hot trips (like the Kelso Dunes hike pictured above).

For the most part, however, I’ve found other ways to haul gear-plus-spawn that are more efficient and more comfortable for me. Please check back tomorrow for Big Red Part Two: Alternatives. I’ll talk about the quest for a great soft-structured carrier and what our go-to setup looks like now.

PS – Please bear with me as I experiment with affiliate linking. Thanks!