Thursday, March 13, 2014

Alive in the Woods: Yellowstone National Park in Winter

(This is a guest post by Abbigail Kriebs on getting outside and using the off-season to get away. As much as I enjoy writing about the outdoors, I enjoy reading about it, and I'm pleased Abbigail sent me this account of a trip to Yellowstone. Parks take on a different aspect in the off-season, and I envy her seeing a near-empty Yellowstone in its winter garb.

By day, Abbigail Kriebs is the associate editor of a B2B publication with an audience of about 30,000. By night, she is a freelance writer, editor, and photographer. She is trying to remember to blog about life, books, and story at

Sometimes, you need to live life at a slower pace. I’ve been learning that this year, over and over again. In a life that is lived amongst cubicle farms and email notifications, there is just too much hurry, too much bustle. Sadly, not many of us can do anything about it: these are our jobs, our livelihoods. The way we put bread on the table.

I have discovered, though, that frequent escapes to the woods are good for the soul.

 A year ago now, my husband and I decided to take a page from everyone around us and go to the beach. We saved, we packed, and we flew down to the beautiful island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean. We stayed at a nice resort and enjoyed the sun and the sand. But the only day that we look back on and wish we could relive is the day we climbed Gros Piton, the largest mountain on the island. It was the one day that we were surrounded by trees and birds - by nature, and not man-made artifice. It was lovely, but such a small part of the trip. We came home still restless, still wishing for more time.

Fast-forward to this year, and we decided to go on a completely different sort of trip: one that was truly an escape from the everyday. We decided to head west and spend a few days in Yellowstone National Park in the middle of winter. Since home base for us is Wisconsin, we are no strangers to the cold and snow. Our friends and neighbors just could not understand why we were trading one snow-covered landscape for another. Our reply: have you ever smelled mountain air in the winter? We hadn’t, but we knew that it was what we wanted - and needed. So, west we went. We packed all our winter gear, loaded up the car, and along with good friends drove over 1,000 miles just to get away. And it was well worth it.

 Often called America’s favorite National Park, Yellowstone National Park is even more of a retreat in the winter months. I have heard that only 5% of the visitors to the park travel there in the winter. The park closes all the roads at the first snowfall, leaving them unplowed until the spring thaw. This creates not only an air of mystery, but one of preservation and apart-ness. The vistas have an air about them of being chosen. Visitors must gather at the south or west entrances and be shuttled into the park, often by Bombardiers (Bom - bar - dee -ay, as they are from French Canada), as shown here.

 Our journey into the park was magical. it was my first time seeing the park at all, and the view in the winter was just breathtaking.  The day we went snowshoeing was like taking a step back in time. I felt almost how early pioneers would have felt, had they made it a practice to snowshoe while wearing North Face parkas. We had the privilege to snowshoe the rim of the canyon at Yellowstone, and the eight of us in our group were the only ones on the trail - the only people for miles and miles. There was a hush about the woods that allowed my soul to quiet like it never could in the office. My self expanded to be the person that I wanted to be always, but that fought against time constraints and expectations back home.

 There is something in us that responds to the woods like it responds to no other thing on earth. While I know that others enjoy the beach or a vast skyline, I am never more at home than in the woods where there is life and shelter and beauty all around. I understand why Neil focuses so much of his time enjoying and reflecting on the outdoors. I can’t ever get enough, either.

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Monday, March 10, 2014

Knee Replacement Anniversary Hike, Hawk Mountain, March 2014

March 8 was the two year anniversary of my bilateral knee replacement surgery. At the time I went under the knife I was in such pain I was taking the maximum dose of Ibuprofen daily, and still hurt so much one day I began to spontaneously vomit at work and had to go home. Aside from one short hike in 2011 and one a month before surgery I'd given up hiking. My last bike ride was New Year's Day, and it was the first in months. I gave up showering on days I didn't have to work as I hurt when I stood in one place. My world was becoming smaller and smaller. 

My procedure lasted over five hours. That's considerably longer than most knee replacements, but much of that time the surgeon spent straightening my severely knocked right leg. As he later described it to me, I was "one of the worst cases he'd seen" in a quarter century of joint replacement, and he shook his head and said, "all that correction."

But corrected I was. Recovery was long and very hard - I didn't stand until four days after surgery; in most cases the patient is up in a day or two. Just before discharge from inpatient physical therapy I developed a blood clot in my lungs and spent three days in another hospital. When I was finally home I worked hard on my recovery, but progress was slow. I'd never heard of post-surgical depression but I found out what that was. My stamina was so bad I'd fall asleep on the way TO a hike or ride. My weight ballooned and I thought I'd never be the eager, if challenged, outdoorsman I'd tried to be. 

My heart wasn't in it, but my heart recovered. I forced myself to do things, and friends helped get me outside and alive - Judy, Sayre, Aaron, and others brought me around. I struggled, but I was out there. 

I still struggle, but now I enjoy it. And I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate two years of recovery than to hike at Hawk Mountain again. The two and a fraction mile hike has some of the best views in Pennsylvania, and the hike would challenge me without defeating me. A friend decided to join me on a "kid friendly" hike on Meetup, and we met before noon at the parking lot. I was eager to see Hawk Mountain dressed in snow, and I was prepared for hiking in it - boots with good traction, microspikes, hiking poles, and determination. We met our guide at the South Overlook, and our small group was off. 

I found the going a lot easier than I expected, at least
at first. The snow was deep enough that the rock
gardens on the trail were covered. I strode carefully but confidently on the hardpack snow. Before we knew it were were at the first set up steps. These took some care on my part, but it was one foot over the other, and our party was at the short stretch of trail known as the Hall of the Mountain King. We walked on level ground for a few hundred feet, and then the tough part - the second set of steps. Melting and refreezing left a thick layer of ice on everything. I used the handrails and worked the microspikes for all they were worth, and soon enough we were at the North Lookout. 
The ice on the stairway combined with my problems descending led our group to chose the Express Trail down to the main trail back to the parking lot. The Express Trail is longer, but there are no stairs to navigate. I had three near falls, two of which I stopped and one of which a nearby tree halted. I had a scraped knuckle and a few tense moments, but I worked through them and joined my friends at the bottom. From there it was back to the South Lookout.

As I stood on the South Lookout, thoughts flooded my mind. My first post to Facebook the morning after my surgery, I wrote "I am experiencing new levels of pain." Two years later, thanks to medicine, friends, and hard work, I am experiencing new levels of pleasure and wonder. My world is getting larger day by day. And while Hawk Mountain was a great way to celebrate an anniversary, I celebrate every day. And I hope to celebrate every day as long as I have days. 

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A Taste For The Woods: 2014-03-09

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A Taste For The Woods