Navigation by map and dog

Call it the angle of indiscretion.

Sure, there’s Polaris, the shadow cast by the noonday sun, the prevailing winds, and any number of natural clues to find your bearings without a compass or GPS device. But how about using your dog? Simply watch the pooch hitch a leg or squat to do its business and odds are you can find magnetic north. A team of Czech and German researchers have proven that dogs exhibit magnetoreception, sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field, and that Fido prefers to align himself on a north-south axis when answering nature’s call. When a dog veers off that axial preference, the change is due to fluctuations in the magnetic field.

Researchers just published the study, “Dogs are sensitive to small changes in the Earth’s magnetic field,” in the journal Frontiers in Zoology. They studied 70 dogs across a 37- breed spectrum, from small Terriers and Beagles to big breeds including Weimeraners and Rhodesian Ridgebacks. (They even threw in a few mutts in the observation pool, an egalitarian gesture I appreciate as a Lab-mix owner.) After cataloging the compass bearings of 1,893 craps and 5,582 pees, researchers concluded that dogs predictably align themselves north-south, provided that the magnetic field is stable.

Geeky dog lovers will do what I did. I took a compass on my morning dog walk and recorded Shackleton’s alignment when eliminating, using the thoracic spine through the center of his head as my vector. The results were fascinating. Shackleton’s angle of excretion was true north for two trips to the loo, and just a few degrees west of true north on two other observations. His head pointed north for all but one reading. In other words, my dog appeared to take declination into account. As for the circling he does sometimes–much ado about a poo–it could be due to the magnetic field in flux.

I can imagine Les Stroud, the Canadian survival expert, using a dog compass method to find his way to civilization after a frigid night spent in a leaf and twig shelter and a breakfast of wild sorrel and fried grasshopper. He’ll pray there’s no magnetic storm to throw off the dog. And he’ll need supplementary data to distinguish north from south, since the dog won’t necessarily point his head or tail to magnetic north, but only align himself along a north-south axis.

Pictured below: Shackleton and Miles aligned in parallel north-south axes at rest under calm magnetic conditions.



Eat Play Live

When I was sixteen, I broke my ankle dropping into an empty swimming pool on my skateboard. The cops came shortly after I crashed, which wouldn’t have been so bad had the other kid and I been there legally. As it was, we had climbed over the fence to access the town’s public pool, shuttered for the off-season. I ignored my throbbing ankle and ran. We had no choice. We ran like hell, clambered back over the fence, and ran some more.

Since those years of rules-be-damned delinquency, I have mothballed the skateboard but continued to test my body with spectacular falls and minor misfortunes. Most of my recent injuries have occurred while mountain biking, none serious enough to keep me from pedaling, just superficial stuff where a small first-aid kit suffices. Meg, cheeky wifey, bought me a big kit and a dozen boxes of Band-Aids for Christmas last year. Anyone who has seen my shins, scarred from pedal bite, knows I will never be a leg model, a heart-rending reality I accept. When I shuffle off this mortal coil, this cloak of a body will be patched and threadbare, a thrift store reject.

“I think you suffer from toxoplasmosis,” my friend Kim said to me.

When asked about this mysterious disease, she defined it as a danger addiction caused by exposure to cats and their feces. Growing up, I did have a cat. Actually, two. Kim asked our friend Kyle, who likes to do the same stuff I do, if he had a kitty when he was a kid. One, he replied. Based on this statistically valid sample of two, I guess she’s right. Latent Infection by Toxoplasma gondii has been associated with enhanced risk-taking personality profiles and suicidal behavior, according to the ever reliable Wikipedia. A link between cat turds and suicidal behavior? I raise an eyebrow. One thing is certain though: Boredom is suicidal.


180 Degrees South

Meg eating box

Meg loves a sure thing. I like taking my chances.

For Meg’s birthday weekend, we headed to a place of spectacular beauty, a sure thing.

We should know since our late August trip to the Goat Rocks Wilderness marked Meg’s fourth visit, my fifth. Though we typically venture to the North Cascades that time of year, I finally relented to her standing request to repeat the Snowgrass Flat loop.

This popular loop horseshoeing the Goat Creek Basin is a gobsmacking volcano and wildflower show. On the effort scale of one to four ibuprofen, give it two pills for the 1,900-ft. gain over13 miles. You can boost vert stats with a side trip up Old Snowy or Hawkeye Point, the latter a great vantage point to peer down into the Goat Lake basin and out north to the Tatoosh Wilderness.

We had optimal weather, cool for the hike in with a warming trend. Clouds dissipated and then it was CAVU, as the pilots say. Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited. Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens and a faint Mt. Hood in the far distance contrast with nearby Goat Rocks. When we hiked up to Hawkeye Point, Mt. Rainier popped up and I looked for the familiar peaks of the Tatoosh.

Meg with Rainier

For three sun-kissed days, we enjoyed the high open country, its heather meadows and spray of of lupine, gentian, paintbrush and  bear grass, without bugs. On one of our previous trips, the air was so thick with mosquitoes we sequestered ourselves in our tent where Meg lay engrossed in All The Dirt, a music biography of Motley Crue.

Like good campers, we carried our ten non-essentials including six cans of Brew Free or Die IPA and two birthday cupcakes from Cupcake Royale. Super paleo, dude. (Note that our liberal interpretation of the Paleo regime also encourages consumption of cave-aged Gruyere.)

Meg and Shack

no room

We should have taken climbing helmets for the goat-triggered rockfall. These sure-footed creatures traversed the ridge above our campsite perched on a rock knob and set off a rock shower. Go figure–goats on Goat Ridge on their way to Goat Lake kicking down rocks in the Goat Rocks.

Naturally, we had Shackleton in tow and he carried a pack with kibble and biscuits. He protested at first, acting as if I had placed a giant boulder inside his bags. “Imagine Sisyphus happy,” I told him. I also pointed to other dogs carrying ostensibly greater burdens. He eventually came to enjoy the pack. Dog people will tell you that some dogs really don’t like living off the dole; some dogs, including Shack, really need a job.

I’ll take some ill-behaved goats for a well-behaved dog and a happy birthday girl any day. A sure thing ain’t such a bad thing.

2013 WCN Annual Climb: Glacier Peak TR


Glacier Peak via White Pass and Disappointment Peak: July 12-15, 2013

Participants: Colleen Hinton (fearless cat herder); Diane Hennessey; Laurie Cullen; Laurel Fan; Daphne Rich; Robin Kodner; Mary Yocom; Paulina Varshavskaya; Clare Parfitt; Nancy Kim

Animal handlers: Cath Carine; Anne Tarver

Stock: Sumo the dog


With access to the North Fork Sauk road restored, Glacier Peak was the top choice for the annual climb after previous attempts stymied by poor weather or road closure. I had dismissed the objective as just another checkbox on the tick list, though others were downright giddy to bag this remote, wilderness volcano. Rightfully so.

The weather forecast was excellent, marred only by a 30 percent chance of showers on approach day. We met Friday at 6:30am in Seattle, picked up Laurie further north, drove to Darrington and arrived at the small trailhead parking lot just after 9am.

Colleen’s pack contained half a Trader Joe’s aisle and a tiny harness, consistent with her hybrid philosophy of ultra-heavy food and gram-weenie gear. DH’s kit went on a crash diet: a new McHale pack with mysteriously sourced, lightweight glacier gear. Clare’s burden was tall and listing to port.

The gang was on the North Fork Sauk River trail, elevation 2,120 ft., by 10:20am. Clouds kept us cool as we hiked a gently rolling path through old growth cedar, hemlock and silver fir, past bogs of giant skunk cabbage. At approximately five miles, we reached the Mackinaw shelter, a dilapidated affair, moss-riddled and carved with initials and an obscenity aimed at former president Bush. Sun broke through the cloud cover as we climbed the switchbacks, then contoured east. Valerian scent lingered. Penstemon, columbine, and Indian paintbrush were in bloom. A bumper crop of glacier lily carpeted open slopes in yellow.

We reached the intersection with the PCT, our rendez-vous point with Mary Yocom, a hair ahead of schedule. Mary had spent Thursday night at Mackinaw camp. We arrived at the trail crossing just before 4pm and reached White Pass shortly afterwards. The barometer was dropping as thickening storm clouds crept towards us. A ‘No Camping’ sign at the pass proper directs campers to sites in a small basin below with plenty of running water, a tree-sheltered kitchen area, and a canted privy with crappy ergonomics (pun intended) mitigated by a sublime view of Sloan Peak.

The wind kicked up; rain and hail followed. A dog barked in the distance. Must be Sumo, Anne and Cath’s low-rider, we thought. I made out a squat dog in a rain coat herding a not-too-tall figure toting a pink umbrella. Sumo, Anne and Cath dropped in for a visit as we were discussing summit plans. One team—Robin, Laurel and Paulina—would summit the following day, while Colleen, DH, Laurie, Clare and I opted to move camp to Glacier Gap. Mary intended to accompany us to the Gap. Daphne chose to remain at the pass. She had just come out of the Enchantments the day before. Sleep was appealing. Moreover, she had forgotten her boot insoles back at the car.

On Saturday, Robin, Laurel and Paulina rose at 3:30am for a 4:30am alpine start. The rest of us slept late, sipped morning coffee in the sun and broke camp at a social pace.

We pushed off around 11am, taking the Foam Creek trail just below the ridge and county line. It was good tread of alternating dirt and snow. Chubby marmots grazed, largely indifferent to our presence. When the path petered out we hopped to the other side of the ridge to reach the White Chuck Glacier where we booted our way north on soft snow, heavily cupped and runneled. Crimson pools of snow algae stood out against the whiteness.

Black bear tracks.

Black bear tracks.

At 1600-ish hours, we made high camp, elevation 7,200 ft., just as Robin, Laurel and Paulina rolled into town. As promised, we lit a stove for tea and served the happy summiteers. At 1700 hours, we bid adieu to the ladies who were White Pass-bound.


Gerdine Glacier and Gerdine Ridge

Gerdine Glacier and Gerdine Ridge

On Sunday, the four-day team heard the 5am rooster call. We left at 6:05am and cramponed immediately from camp on good-purchase, styrofoam snow. Our route, via Gerdine Glacier, Disappointment Peak and Cool Glacier, presented no crevasse issues allowing us to travel unroped for the entire ascent. We skirted the main ridge and stayed on snow as much as possible to avoid the time suck of crampon removal and ditched glacier gear before the final stretch, a 900-foot section of pumice followed by a short snow slope to the summit of the 10, 541-foot volcano.

Laurie, Colleen and Clare on top.

Laurie, Colleen and Clare on top.

At 9:38am, we were on top. At 9:39am, Colleen was blowing up a pink flamingo and dressing up in a trollop’s costume, a 50th birthday gift from DH presented to her in Terror Basin. For the summit photo shoot, she donned the infamous red latex skirt, hemmed to porn-star specifications, and a wig ostensibly made by passing a space blanket through a paper shredder. When we sat down for lunch, she stretched out on the snow, flashed a coquettish smile and whispered hello to a young man with a wispy Jesus beard.

“Hello,” Jesus mumbled awkwardly. Perhaps he was wondering what the fuck Mary Magdalene was doing atop Glacier Peak? He scurried off with his two apostles a comfortable distance away.

I ripped open a “Pocket Shot” of bourbon and passed it around. The summit was getting seedier by the minute. (Guide to Ultralight Boozing to come.)

As we ate, a solo skier arrived, the underdressed and overly fit lad we had seen at White Pass

“That’s one helluva outfit!” he cried enthusiastically. He had bivied on Disappointment Peak and was yo-yoing runs from the top. He’s from Bellingham. Robin lives in Bellingham. Hmmm.

As we talked, a deafening sound pierced the air. Holy fuck. A nimble fighter jet grazed us from above scaring the shit out of all present.

Gazing west, we could see all the way to Puget Sound; to the north, the glaciated relief of the North Cascades; to the south, the peaks of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Glacier’s height, isolation and central vantage point from which to view all points of the compass won me over.

After a mere hour and a half of relaxing in a spot protected from the wind, we began the descent. We roped up for a short spell below the pumice track at roughly 9,500 ft. on the Cool Glacier, then coiled our ropes and removed crampons for the rest of the trip to Glacier Gap. We broke camp and hiked to White Pass where Colleen had a surprise stashed. She served frozen Margaritas which tasted divine. I pulled out a chaser of chilled vodka to share.

On Monday, we woke to sunshine. We left at 8am for the hike down to the forest where we identified flowers and plants with the aid of DH, a walking Pojar and Mackinnon guide. At Mackinaw, we stopped by the river and stared. I read the water, mimed a 10 and 2 arc, casting towards a soft pocket. As we walked the last bit of trail, our minds fixed on the usual theme of creature comforts: real food, cold beer, cotton clothes and sandals.

Glacier Peak with a fantastic group of ladies. Check.

WCN Third Annual Ski and Snowcamp: TR



Colleen Hinton (fearless leader who forgot her skins, but not her book)

Nancy Kim (humble scribe and Mid construction manager)

Diane Hennessey (terrain-management consultant)

Dawn Chapel (map expert and mascot handler)

Paulina Varshavskaya (worker’s rights activist)

Clare Parfitt (tavern centerpole-dancer)


We skinned. We stripped. We skied.

Weather was unseasonably hot for WCN’s Third Annual Ski and Snowcamp, so in lieu of dressing up, we dressed down, way down. Normally a winter trip, this weekend outing turned into a spring affair, and what better rite of spring than skiing in skivvies?

We left the back lot of Mt. Baker Ski Resort a little after noon on Friday. The plan was to camp in the flats just below Artist Point, a little more than a mile from the parking lot. The group departed for camp leaderless since El Jefe had forgotten an essential piece of gear–her skins—and was forced to drive to Glacier to rent a pair.

It was an easy skin south, up the cat track to the “Backcountry Warning” sign where we hived off  towards Artist Point. Plenty of day trippers were out, but we had the camping flats to ourselves. A cloudless sky cast Shuksan in sharp relief. This year’s smaller goup of six allowed us to forgo the second Mid, so we only had one tavern to excavate. I told the day laborers that we would follow an exciting new protocol in Middie…umm…erection: pitch and dig. Rather than guesstimate the perimeter of the Mid, we would carve out the bench seating and table with the shelter in place. Clare stabilized the centerpole while the rest of us pulled taut and staked the corners. Paulina attempted to unionize the workers, a leftist movement I immediately quashed. They demanded health care and I showed them a first-aid kit.

Clare dances on the centerpole.

Clare dances on the centerpole.


Colleen’s timing proved impeccable. She came sauntering into camp in some jerry-rigged G3 skins just as we had completed the tavern. We quickly pitched our tents and set out for a late-afternoon run on the north-facing slopes near camp. The free-heelers outnumbered the fixed, four to two. Colleen, in her non-judgmental therapist’s tone, queried Clare,  “So tell me why you bought teles again?”

I had my new birthday skis in tow, Armada JJs, fully-rockered boards measuring a chubby 115 mm underfoot. They surf pow and ski switch well. I was curious to test them in spring conditions. I dropped into a steep section of soft, tracked-out snow with caution, then carved turns effortlessly as I headed skier’s left to await the others. “These fatties are the shit,” I thought to myself.

Back at camp, libations flowed. Comfortably seated at the tavern, we toasted the day with Margaritas, spiced rum, bourbon and red wine. We left the door open to the view of alpenglow over Shuksan. Then came the noise, faint at first, a whiny roar. ‘Bilers on dusk patrol. How thankful we were to admire the blushing scenery to the music of their engines. We could only hope they had enough fuel to last until nightfall so that we might gaze at Orion and the Pleiades to that peaceful, soporific drone.


Saturday was another warm, sunny day. We discussed our options given the avalanche conditions, considerable on south-facing slopes, moderate on other aspects. The standard tour of Herman Saddle crosses a significant avy slope that had released. We looked at the map, scanned the terrain and wondered if there was an alternate descent route to avoid a late-afternoon crossing of that slope. We also reconned the boot track up Table Mountain. Ultimately, we decided the safest bet would be skiing shadier aspects off Shuksan arm. We dropped in from the ski area cat track, hiked up an existing boot path, then skinned over icy slopes to gain the ridge. Dawn cursed a bit, fighting to get purchase at times on a dicey section. She mulled turning around, but ended up joining the gang for the last push. We snapped photos with Baker as backdrop. I noticed more smiles than frowns on the descent which offered better-than-predicted snow.

Once back on the cat track, I felt the need for a costume change. “Let’s ski back in our underwear,” I suggested. Colleen was game, but wanted to wait until we were a bit closer to camp. So we skied down to our turn-off, and casually removed our clothes. An unsuspecting couple came across our scantily clad party. Surely, we looked like some twisted parody of a catalogue, Title 9 meets Victoria’s Secret. The man cut a wide berth while the woman simply repeated “have fun” several times like someone who just learned English from a Berlitz guide. It’s a good thing they didn’t linger longer. Our tops came off for a twilight run off a sunny knoll near camp. Backcountry chicks are suckers for exposure.


Saturday night was a capella night at the tavern. Our rousing singalong—always spirited, seldom on key—spanned the genres and decades. Pink Floyd and Pink Martini, Rocky Horror, followed by the true horror, Abba. More liquor, more wine—and beer! Snow-chilled Bodington lagers courtesy of Colleen “where the hell did I bury those” Hinton. We sang for hours. Hoarse throats were our reward the following day.

Sunday morning, our fearless leader and I buried our beacons with candy-filled eggs to celebrate the Easter bunny’s ascension (not to be confused with the day when the bunny looks for its shadow). Colleen called out “Avalanche! Quick, get your shovels and beacons!” The avy drill/egghunt did not go over well initially with the campers who had other plans. Someone had to take a crap; another wanted to put on her ski boots. The sense of urgency for our two victims seemed low. The rescue drill was more a recovery.

Our final ski tour was Herman Saddle. We managed to get the most recent avy report; the danger level had not increased despite Saturday’s higher temperatures. We decided to do the tour, skiing only the east face and descending early enough in the day to avoid potential wet-slides off the south-facing slope. We cooked in the solar oven as we skinned up from Bagley Lake basin. We stayed on the north side of the gully for the descent which produced sweet turns for the upper two-thirds of the ride. Despite the heat, we demonstrated a bit of modesty and kept our clothes on.

Ultralight reading

The following is a book review by WCN board member Colleen Hinton.

Alan Bennett: The Uncommon Reader.  London Review of Books, 2006.

This is an ideal book to take on the trail.  The paperback edition weighs only 3.5 ounces.

The reading, however?  Not so light.  It took me three years to read.  Three years, that is, on the WCN Annual Backcountry Ski and Snow Camp trip.  At 120 ½ pages, I averaged about 20 pages a night.  It was all I could do to get through my allotment on the 2011 trip, and the book lay around for the rest of the year.

However, it was clearly irresistible.  By the time March 2012 rolled around, it was still the lightest unread book I owned.  Besides, Lionel Shriver’s review of it in the Daily Telegraph — “A beguiling bedtime story for grown-ups” — left me more than willing to give it another try: So it came with me again in 2012.
Nancy couldn’t believe it.
“You’re STILL reading that book??”
My retort, “But it’s so light!” had her snorting.
I think she even tolerated a page of being read to on that trip, before she began pointedly snoring.

When she saw the book for the third time in 2013, she almost buried it with her blue bag. (Editor’s note: I should have.)
I put it to her that a book had never had such a determined reader.  It held so much promise, for its weight.  Would Bennett be impressed, or horrified?  The book had become a real conversation piece. (Editor’s note: It’s far more entertaining to talk about this book than to read it.)

Oh, my review?  OK, OK.  So the Queen (yes, the current one, as we find out only way into the book) gets incidentally led by her wayward corgis to the mobile library outside Buckingham Palace.  She borrows a book and becomes hooked on reading.  She becomes bored by public life and begins to neglect her public duties.  By her 80th birthday (page 108, at which point we are very relieved that this must signal some kind of climax) she decides she wants to write a memoir.  We discover that the only royal precedent for doing this was her uncle, the Duke of Windsor, and he had abdicated before he decided to do it.  The story ends abruptly with the radical notion that the Queen is about to announce to her birthday party attendees, that she will abdicate in order to write.

This was not a gripping book.  But, one thing is for sure: its weight can’t be beat.  It certainly weighs a lot less than Nancy’s reading matter-of-choice for these trips, The New Yorker.  Enough said. (Editor’s final note: The New Yorker only weighs more than The Uncommon Reader when wet.)

For next year’s trip, I’m going back to bringing Accidents in North American Mountaineering.   Not as light, but man — is it gripping!

Latro ergo sum


He is the alpha and omega of my day. I rise not to birdsong or cathedral light angling through the curtain gaps. No, this sleeper’s wake comes from the crescendoing whimper of a starving dog at the foot of the bed. At night, I take him out for his last sniff of grass in search of the perfect latrine.

Shackleton is not my raison d’être (reason for being) so much as my raison d’être en retard (reason for being late). However short on time I am, I find time to scratch behind his floppy ears, massage his chest and tell him how good he is, even when he’s not. I sniff his paws and note their earthy pong. I tell him how handsome he is, the most handsome dog on the planet, the most handsome dog in the universe. Hyperbole relaxes him.

He is not universally loved, nor does he love the universe. Shackleton scoffs at the fundamental concept of democracy, that all men are created equal. Hierarchy exists. Some are more equal than others. His split-second character judgments are fallible and sometimes unfair. While not racist, my dog is not free from prejudice and barks relentlessly at those hobbled by a limp or bound to a wheelchair. For whom the tail wags, he is a lucky one.

Although Shackleton is a cradle-to-grave dependent I can’t write off my taxes, he earns his keep by plying several trades. Nature gave him a menacing bark and wary disposition and forged a talented watchdog. He watches over the house, the truck and even Miles, the cat. No squirrel or raccoon will ever break in. He obviates the need for therapy and Valium. When Meg is not around to hear me rant, I tell Shackleton about various asswipes I’ve encountered. So I’m at the PCC and I need a jump start.. I have the cables hooked up and all I need is one person to pull up beside me. First person I ask flat out says no and offers no excuse. Second pillock says he needs to shop first and maybe he’ll do it afterwards. The most handsome dog in the universe listens quietly and licks my face. It relaxes me.

When I hear a paw rattling a supperdish against the floor, I ask Meg if Shackleton has eaten. Half the time the answer is yes. I tell the liar he’s busted. He rattles the dish again. I admire how he sticks to his story. Whether it’s tug of war or his campaign for food, Shackleton rarely gives up. It’s as though he lives life by his namesake’s motto: “By endurance, we succeed.”

Shack is Greenland in the Mercator projection,

taking up more space than he should

on any given plane: the bed, the couch,

the entire kitchen floor.

Short for Shackleton (not Shaquille),

Shack barks at foil wrap and chases the aging cat

with the belly heading south.

Not to seem unworthy of a name,

this Labrador is drawn to polar themes,

snow and cold and ice,

and navigates by the sextant in his nose.

His beauty knows no vanity, his indulgences no guilt.

His water dish is always half full

and he wags his tail as if to quote Thoreau:

“The only wealth is life.”

He leaps for the ball, thrown by a human

bred for such tasks, until overcome with

retriever’s ennui and digs a hole to Elephant Island.