Tupper's 2 Cents

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Tag: Fragrance Lake

Best of Bellingham — Hike 1 (Chuckanut Mountain)

Kathie’s Favorites

It’s hard to accept, but summer is over. There’s snow in the high country, which means slogging through snow or snowshoeing to access alpine or sub-alpine hikes.  I am not quite ready for that! For now, I will accept my fate of months of hiking in the lowlands. Fortunately, there are multitudes of hikes to do in and around Bellingham.

Having lived and hiked in Bellingham since 1993, I’ve developed lots of favorites. Sure, there are guidebooks and WTA trail links that give information on local hikes. But what I most like to do is combine trails, seeing how many view spots and how much variety I can fit into a long day hike. It feeds my need to explore, cover some ground, and immerse fully into my happy place of wandering around outside. A couple times a month I’ll share one of these gems, with enough information that local Bellingham folks can get out there and do it too...or at least, come along vicariously for the fun!

Fragrance Lake Road to Burnout Ridge to Lost Lake to Rock Trail to Cyrus Gates Overlook to Fragrance Lake.

Fragrance Lake

TOTAL MILES — around 12.       ELEVATION GAIN—  Approximately 3200 feet.       DIFFICULTY — Moderate to Hard.      HIGHLIGHTS  —  Two lakes, three spectacular view points, old growth forest.      SATISFACTION METER — Very high!

Fragrance Lake Road to Burnout Ridge   (3.7 miles)

To access this hike, head south on Chuckanut Drive to Lost Lake Parking lot. The large lot is on your left, just past the Fragrance Lake TH parking and entrance to Larrabee State Park. A Discover Pass is required;  if you don’t have one, you can park on the right side of the road in several  spots just before and after the entrance to the parking lot. 🙂

I arrived at the parking lot at 10:45 on this late October day. Hiking conditions were close to ideal. Partly sunny, not too cold, very little wind, lots of fall color, and no chance of rain. All this potential sublimity right on the tails of a week of rain and wind storms. I was psyched!

This was a spontaneous hike, as other things cancelled in my day to allow a big window. I did not have a backpack with me. I opted to eat my sandwich in the car and guzzle 24 ounces of water for hydration purposes so I wouldn’t have to carry either. The rest of my provisions I stuck in my coat pocket, a coat I knew I’d shed but would need to carry keys, phone, an energy bar, etc. Not my usual preparedness, but it would have to do. Fueled up, I was ready to hit the trail by 11:00.

The hike up Fragrance Lake Road (accessed just behind the bathrooms) was predictably steep. It wound through forest of Alder, Doug Fir, Western Hemlock and Big Leaf Maples. I was sufficiently distracted from the steady climb by the enormous amount of fallen gigantic maple leaves that created a certifiable yellow brick road!  Route finding tip:  About half way up, at the only junction on the road, stay left, following the sign to Fragrance Lake, not Burnout. This is confusing as this hike goes to Burnout Ridge, but I am not exactly sure how the right fork gets you there.  Another day of exploration may take me right, but on this day, I went left.

Big Leaf Maples

Over the course of the 2.2 mile road, I shed all my layers and was down to a t-shirt before the top. Not bad for October! At the obvious sign near the top, I went right on South Lost Lake Trail. The trail here is well-maintained, as this whole area is within Larrabee State Park. 1.25 miles from the junction, I was blessed with an opening out towards Samish Bay. It was a great time of year for the view, as sun-glinted off the water through trees only partially clothed in colored leaves.

The trail leveled for a short distance, until I reached a map kiosk, labelled Checkpoint Juliet. These various checkpoints exist throughout Chuckanut, Galbraith, and Blanchard mountains, a safety and route finding system created and implemented by numerous groups working together with Whatcom Parks and Recreation. The unmarked trail to Burnout Ridge goes right at Checkpoint Juliet.

I followed this trail, past the Leaving State Parks sign, then a very short distance to another road. Here, I turned right for the first of the Burnout Ridge views. The expansive views overlooked Samish Bay, Bellingham Bay, Lummi Island, and out to the San Juan Islands and beyond. It was partly cloudy and hazy, but still quite spectacular!

Island view from Burnout Ridge

Lummi Island from Burnout Ridge

From here, I followed the logging road up again, toward Burnout Ridge view two. Route finding tip: At the split in the road, stay left. Soon I could see Lost Lake in full view off to my left, and, just after that, Mt. Baker exploded into view. Another stupendous overlook, despite the hazy day.

Mt. Baker from Burnout Ridge view two

Burnout Ridge to Lost Lake  (2.3 miles)

The trail took off from this lookout, heading steeply down towards Lost Lake. This was the only tricky part of the hike. Since the trail is outside a maintained zone, it’s rocky, rooty, and quite steep in places. But easy enough to follow, and I took it slowly.  Route finding tip:  In less than a mile, the trail splits. STAY LEFT — right heads to Mud Lake, a seriously unmaintained trail, I hear (I have not been there, yet…). The maples and alders with their bright yellows were fantastic as I approached Lost Lake, and again provided ample distraction as I navigated a few blowdowns on the trail. I stayed high on a ridge above the lake, then dropped down to the south end of Lost Lake.

Lost Lake

At the lake outlook, a waterfall was just beginning to form. Later in fall and winter, it can be quite spectacular. In summer, it all but disappears. I stopped briefly at my favorite contemplative flat rock, one of only two places to get close to the water. I continued coursing along above Lost Lake, until the trail dropped back down at the north end. I navigated slippery logs as I left the lake, and then was back onto solid ground.

Lost Lake to Cyrus Gates Overlook  (2.2 miles)

Soon I encountered another trail sign and Checkpoint (I can’t remember the name). Here I went left, on South Lost Lake  trail.  In another half-mile or so,  I came to the junction with Rock Trail. This is one of my favorite trails in the entire 8000 acres of public lands that encompasses the Chuckanuts!  I am completely enamored with it, despite it’s steepness –1200 feet of elevation in 1.4 miles to an overlook.

Licorice ferns on boulders, Rock Trail

Sandstone boulder, Rock trail

I took my time on Rock Trail, enjoying the masses of ferns, my favorite being Licorice Ferns. They grow on trailside boulders, and blanket the surroundings in this damp environment. The sandstone boulders are truly massive on Rock trail, 100 feet high in places. They are dotted with neat holes, and some have caves to explore in and around. Partly why I am drawn to this trail is the labor of love that created it. I’m certain it took countless volunteer hours  to carve it out of the steep hillside, and I’m grateful for those who put in the time. Because of it’s steepness, staircases abound. The final push to the top contains 118 stairs. I didn’t count the lowers ones.

Route finding tip:  Just past the top of the stairs, there is a three way junction. Right (up) takes you on a trail that bypasses the overlook; Go straight to reach Cyrus Gates Overlook, a worthwhile half-mile roundtrip diversion; Left heads down Double Black Diamond trail, which is the way down after enjoying the overlook.

At the overlook, I chose one of three picnic tables, resting while eating my bar and wishing I had water. The overlook sits at 1820 feet, with great views out to the islands. There was no one else there, a rarity as people can drive to the overlook and hike or mountain bike from there (it’s the end of Cleator Road).  I’ve been there in all types of weather and conditions, but never had the place to myself in dozens of visits over the years. Pretty sweet!

From Cyrus Gates overlook

Overlook to Fragrance Lake  (1 mile)

After the overlook, I headed back to the three-way trail split. The trail is not marked as Double Diamond, but that is it’s current name (I have also seen it called Double Diamond and Double Black Diamond). If you are a skier, you know what that means! It’s very steep. The trail used to be called Chin Scraper, that name also implying it’s steepness, especially going up.

Poles would have been useful going down,  but I didn’t bring mine, so caution had to take their place. At times I almost had to side step down, it was that steep. I traversed back and forth, feeling like a skier!  Route finding tip:  About half way down, there is an non-obvious trail split. The much more heavily used trail (right) is for mountain bikers. There used to be a sign here, saying bikers right, hikers left. That sign is gone. I have gone both ways, and both are very steep, but the hiker only trail is much less travelled. And less nerve racking! I have encountered (as a hiker mistakenly on the biker part) mountain bikers flying by at incredible speeds, sometimes in flight after taking a steep jump. If you miss the left trail, which is easy to do, just be alert for mountain bikers. They get serious momentum, and frankly, I don’t know how they even stay on the  bike! Mt. bikers usually hoot and holler with abandon as they sail down, and the noise gives ample warning to move out of the way.

The Double Diamond trail put me out at the map where I first left Fragrance Lake Road. Instead of heading down (left), I went right. After a very short and slightly uphill section, I turned left at two signs that read  “Trail” and “Fragrance Lake”. I had time to add the .2 mile to and the .6 mile loop around the lake.

At the lake, I saw a bunch of people and dogs enjoying the fall day and great swimming access (only dogs were swimming on this day). I asked a couple with swimming dog to take a picture of me and the great reflection…he obliged, and the gal asked if this was my first time at the lake. That made me laugh — I literally can’t count the number of times I’ve been there, but it remains a favorite. Completely tree-encircled and usually calm, it’s a perfect “mountain” lake a stone’s throw from town.

Enjoying Fragrance Lake, for the umpteenth time!

Fragrance Lake to Lost Lake Parking lot  (2.4 miles)

After completing the loop, I scurried down the Fragrance Lake trail. It’s 1.9 miles to Chuckanut Drive, and a scenic one at that. One of my favorite views is late afternoon sun shining through the trees, gleaming spectacularly off the Bay.  I have been known to hike this trail in late afternoon or evening just for this experience! On this day, I was there at the correct time, but the clouds were a little too dense for optimum viewing. Still, the descent went quickly, and I smiled each time hazy sun glinted through the trees.

Someone’s idea of Halloween fun on the Fragrance Lake trail…

At the bottom of the trail, I turned left on the Interurban Trail, for a short .3 miles back to my car. I arrived back at 5:00, happy, hungry, and thirsty.

Hiking time

Trail time for me was six hours. I had diversions of a scheduled 30 minute sit-down phone call and a 20 minute trail-side conversation. And I took breaks at all the viewpoints.  I’d allow six-plus hours if possible to enjoy everything this hike has to offer. There are, of course, portions that can be left out entirely for a shorter hike.  I would strongly recommend getting a map of Chuckanut if you plan to do much hiking there. All my explorations have been sans map, just taking time to explore and picking the brains of others. I do plan to purchase a map soon, though!  Two map suggestions from fellow hikers: Chuckanut Recreation Area Map and Chuckanut Mt./Blanchard Map and Guide.

I’d love to read your thoughts on this post, other hikes in the area that you love, or even wild mountain biker tales! Feel free to shoot me a comment in the Comments section.  

Happy Fall Hiking!

Final view, Rock Trail

My Own Private Half Marathon

Fragrance Lake Half Marathon Route…in the Boot!

Origins of the idea

The inspiration to do this 13.1 mile hike came to me with the force of other ideas I have not been able to ignore — like hiking the John Muir Trail solo last summer, for instance. I was out on a hike on Chuckanut Ridge with my friend Michael on January 23, 2017.  I had been walking and then hiking in a post-op boot for two weeks following December 22nd’s  foot and ankle surgery. Gradually increasing both mileage and difficulty of terrain, I felt ready for the challenge of Chuckanut Ridge Trail (near Bellingham, where I live). Using poles and moving carefully,  I found I was able to successfully negotiate the steep, rocky, heavily rooted Ridge Trail, even in the boot, AND do all that for 3 hours. That got me wondering just how much I COULD do in a boot, and my curiosity and goal orientation took over.

“Michael”, I said.  “I have an idea…”

“Oh no”, he said, knowing full well that is a dangerous statement coming from me. “What is it?”

“Are you free next Monday? January 31st? I want to do the entire Fragrance Lake 1/2 Marathon course while I am still in the boot.” The actual event, I knew,  was Saturday February 11th, a day I have to work. “You’ll love the route — Two Dollar trail, Fragrance Lake, the Rock Trail, and the Chuckanut Ridge Trail. The hardest parts of it are the Rock trail and this Ridge trail. But I think I can do it.”

Two Dollar Trail

Michael, I know, is always up for an adventure and is slowly pushing his own limits of what’s possible hiking-wise, in this case distance. He laughed.  “I know that once it’s in your head, Kathie, you won’t let it go. So sure, let’s plan on it.”

It’s important to note that I have done the whole Fragrance Lake 1/2  marathon course three times before, so I know the route well.  Only once did I actually do the event itself, and that was three years ago on 2/15/14. THAT particular time I had serious demons to confront and unravel before, during, and after the course.

The Fragrance Lake Half of 2014

Inspiration for that Event

I signed up for 2014’s event rather spontaneously with my then boyfriend of three years. We were out on a hike in the Chuckanuts (a term locals use to describe both Chuckanut and adjoining Blanchard Mountain’s complex array of trail systems) in November of 2013 when, unexpectedly, multitudes of runners started passing us. We quickly discovered they were doing a marathon and half marathon on the trails we were hiking on. We continued our hike, keeping out of their way, and watching as they cruised by us in a steady stream.  As we watched the runners, some fast and some almost walking themselves, what struck us most was the variety of body types and running styles.  While many were thin, wiry, efficient running types, there were also heavier, less svelte almost awkward types too. Even though neither of us was running at the time, we were inspired by the diversity of runners, and started talking about the idea of run/walking a trail half marathon ourselves. Back at his house later that evening, we perused upcoming half’s and came upon the Fragrance Lake Half Marathon, scheduled for mid- February of the upcoming year. Motivated by the day’s events, we both signed up, with just three months to prepare.

Unexpected Challenges

Unfortunately and very unexpectedly, things in the relationship soon took a turn for the worse. In early December, my boyfriend/life partner/one who I thought was IT, started becoming increasingly distant. I didn’t understand this abrupt change, his lack of response to texts, not wanting to get together,  etc., and it drove me crazy for two weeks. Finally, in mid-December, we talked. He came to my house and said he needed time alone to work on personal issues. He did his best to explain and I did my best to listen and be compassionate and understanding. It was a painful and emotional conversation, out of which came his request for time away, and my willingness to give it to him. It wasn’t termed a break-up, at least I didn’t hear it that way. Because of my tendency to be the dominant one in relationships, he asked that let him contact me when he was ready to re-engage. I agreed, not realizing at the time what all I was leaving hanging out there in the zone of uncertainty.

I made it through the first few weeks of this with a lot of support from friends and family. I got through Christmas, the anniversary of my Dad’s death on 12/27 (an event that my partner and I shared, and was as impactful and emotional for him as it was for me), New Year’s Eve, and January 2 when we had concert tickets together. And still no word from him. As January continued along, my initial patience with his process started to turn to frustration.  I upped my exercise routine, doing long walks out on the trails and trying to sort out my feelings for and about him, without access to him to do so. I didn’t know what else to do, frankly. So I walked and hiked, even experimented with running a bit, and eventually did the whole half-marathon route, just to see if I could. It was challenging to say the least, and for unknown reasons I ended up getting extremely sick (vomiting, headache) after doing the course that first time.  I wrote a story about it…and sent it via email to my boyfriend (thinking that was an acceptable form of contact), and hoping it might open the door to communication — or at least give me an idea of whether or not he was still planning on doing the Half with me.

He did respond, but only vaguely.  He said nothing about his intentions with the half marathon. I emailed him back directly, saying that if he wasn’t going to do it, my daughter Shannon would sign up and do it with me. Shannon, then 23, and I were living together at the time, and she felt badly for me that he left so abruptly. As much as anyone, Shannon was aware of the complexity of our relationship. When no response came to the second email, I told her she was on. She signed up. Shannon’s birthday is on 2/16, the race was on 2/15, so we decided to turn it into a birthday race – celebration of me trying to run again – anti-Valentine’s Day – screw it, we don’t need men in our lives anyway event!

A Brief History of my Running Past….

A brief word here about my history of running. I started running at the age of 19, after a year of not exercising and weight gain. I ran sporadically through college and through the seven years of my first marriage and two children. Running was always there, like a comfortable and predictable old friend, but never a focus. When I divorced and remarried, I suddenly had time to run as I didn’t have to work with husband #2. We lived in Bellingham, and I ran as much as I could on the trails and roads in and around our home. I started training for a marathon, a goal I’d held in the back of my mind since college, but never really expected to achieve.  LONG story short, I trained for four marathons between 1995 and 1999, and ran zero. I got injured each and every time I would increase my mileage beyond 15 miles or so. My last marathon attempt was an Anchorage Marathon in June, 1999, with Team in Training, a fundraiser for Leukemia. I raised all the money, did the training, but ended up bailing — again — and having back surgery for a herniated disc a week before the marathon. It was a very sad day and a sad time of my life. Six months after surgery, I left my second husband for reasons far too complex to explain here. Suddenly I was on my own with two kids, chronic pain, and no ability to exercise to combat stress.

The next twelve years was an on again, off again struggle — in life and with running. During that time I had knee surgery for chronic ACL problems, a back fusion, and a neck fusion. Between recoveries, I would sometimes be able to get back into running a little bit,  but mostly I became a committed road biker, hiker, and eventually backpacker — not a runner. I totally and completely kept the runner mind-set and desire, I just didn’t have the cooperation of my body to pull it off. I accepted this, but still and always, wanted to run. So with the half-marathon coming up, and Shannon now doing it with me, I decided to give it another go. In early February, I did the course again, this time running where I could and walking the rest, and it took me 4 hours 30 minutes. The cut-off for the race itself was 4:30, and I was determined that if we did it, we would do it to count.

Race Day 2014

By race day, then, I had done the whole course twice, and had a good sense of it. Shannon (who was running some at the time, but not a lot either), agreed to let me decide when we would run and when we would walk. Some of the route is just not runnable (in my view anyway — of course, many die-hards DO run all of it), and I was experiencing calf-cramping every time I ran up hill. With 3300 feet of elevation gain and lots of uneven terrain, that would mean a lot of walking. Somehow, on race day, we arrived late to the starting line. We were running even before the race started! I was exhausted after the first flat mile and a half, and still trying to catch my breath. After that, the hills began in earnest. We evolved into a routine, running the flats and easy downhills, and walking the uphills and the challenging terrain parts of the race. We started at the back of the pack and basically never caught up.

The Rock Trail comes just before the half-way point in the race. It covers only 1.1 miles, through beautiful, fern-adorned boulders and huge rock slabs, with Bellingham Bay peeking out from the trees. But it’s steep, and has many sections of stairs, eventually topping out at the Cyrus Gates Overlook, the high point of the race. At one point on the Rock Trail, Shannon, then a grad student at Western Washington University in Environmental Science,  decided to give me a lesson in the types of trees on the trail. She pointed out Alder, Cedar, Hemlock, Maple, and various evergreen trees. Then she wanted to quiz me as we went along. I was appreciative of her efforts of distraction, but barely hanging in there. I said, with as much patience as I could muster, “Shannon, I will tell you right now, it’s all I can do to  put one foot in front of the other. I am so sorry, but I am not going to be able to recall the names of trees right now. I just have to get through this!” She laughed good-naturedly, and we completed the Rock Trail in companionable silence.

Thankfully, the one refueling stop on the route was at Cyrus Gates overlook.  Volunteers were still there in the wind and drizzle, with food and cheering, though runners had all but passed through. I’d never been last in a race before, and it was hugely encouraging when they cheered us on like we were the first! We allowed ourselves a full stop, chomping  M & M’s and whatever else we could consume quickly. Weather was coming, and we still had the Chuckanut Ridge section to go.

The ridge section, something over two miles, is up and down, rocks and roots, obstacles and uneven ground. Our goal remained to complete the race under 4:30, but uninjured. Both of us are balance challenged and prone to ankle twists, so we took the ridge slowly and carefully. It was tedious and trying. We both tried to cheer each other on, and keep frustration at bay. Neither of us liked the section and it seemed to go on forever.  There were no views, and drizzle had turned to rain.

Shannon and Kathie wet and happy at 2014 finish line

After the ridge, we still had almost five miles to go, mostly downhill. There is one last uphill section on road, then it’s all downhill on trail for the last 3.5 miles. At that point, patience tried by the stopping and starting again to run, Shannon told me she was not going to stop running until the finish line. And that if I wanted to finish with her, I would have to run too. So we did. We pulled off a somewhat convincing last few miles, finishing the race in 4 hours and 2 minutes.  We were 141st  and 142nd out of 149 finishers. The fastest time was 1 hour, 48 minutes– less than half our time. But it felt like a huge victory, and I was on a runner’s high and typically reflective as we feasted on still warm soup and other goodies. Doing the half was in win in so many ways — a statement of independence and OK-ness with being alone, an opportunity to hang with my daughter, and, yes, a mini-comeback with running. As we headed back to the car, soaked but with our bodies replenished,  I joked with Shannon that we could make this an annual event to celebrate her birthday. She said point blank “I don’t think so, Mom. Never again. You are on your own with this one if you want to do it again.”

Back to the Present

Fortunately for Shannon but unfortunately for me, I was on crutches or in a post-op boot recovering from surgery for each of the next two Fragrance Lake Half-Marathons. It wasn’t even on the radar for this year, being similarly in a boot and recovering from both full knee replacement (right) on November 14, and foot and ankle surgery (left) on December 22. It had been a challenging initial recovery phase, using the recently replaced knee to weight bear 100% following foot and ankle surgery.

But after these surgeries healing was happening very quickly, and I started getting out on the trails in the boot earlier this round than previous ones (with the doctor’s approval, of course!)

Plus, three years later, many of the demons I was fighting with in 2014 had been successfully resolved, and it seemed a good time to do the half under different circumstances and with a different set of goals.

My goals for the event were straightforward: 1. See what was possible for me post-operatively — both in a boot, and 2.5 months after knee replacement. I had done as much appropriate preparation and lead up to this adventure as possible, but it would still be a significant jump from what I’d been up to; 2. Do the half route again — under different circumstances, and with so many of the stressors of the previous time now a thing of the past (the old boyfriend and I,  after a long period of total separation and angst, have gone through a process of relationship repair that has turned into close friendship); 3. Get out on trails I love in the middle of the winter in Bellingham, despite challenges — an overcoming of obstacles to do something I love and that feeds my soul like nothing else. Period.

The 2017 Half Marathon Event!

Michael and I were at the Lost Lake Trailhead and ready to go right at 10:00 am. We are both prepared hikers, and between us we had more than enough of everything — food, water, caffeine, extra clothes, rain gear, a map, and basic first aid. Michael kindly brought a portable stool for me to elevate my foot if necessary, or if not, for one of us to sit on. The day was cool and cloudy, but with no threat of rain. We both had poles, not necessary on the first flat part of the course, but essential on the tricky parts. I have learned that poles, particularly in a stiff boot, make challenging upward mobility doable. They also provide an extra balance point on any sort of uneven ground, and are a good braking mechanism when going downhill. The only “rules” we had for our hike were: 1. Take it slow — no time schedule here, except to finish before dark; 2. Take frequent breaks — to elevate the foot for me, and to rest for both of us; 3. Get through it without injury or incident; and 4. Have fun!!

First Break at Fragrance Lake

Everything on this day went pretty much as planned. We more or less cruised the first four miles, despite the steady uphill climb on Two Dollar trail to Fragrance Lake. Here we took our first break. It was cool, and sitting chilled us right off, so we moved again quickly. As anticipated, the route got more challenging once we hit the South Lost Lake trail, a mostly uphill traverse along a ridge overlooking Bellingham Bay. Views were obscured, unfortunately, by low clouds and, the higher up we went, by mist. Eventually the trail curves around and heads the other way, in forest, to the Rock Trail. As mentioned, the Rock Trail is challenging for normal hikers, and was much harder in the boot. The stairs were particularly tough, made more so by the still recovering knee replacement on the other side.  It was slow going, one step at a time. I have never counted the stairs on Rock Trail, but there are plenty and they are steep. The coolest part of the rock trail was the mist. As we looked up, the trees were blanketed in a surreal mist, making the whole stretch, already very fairy-like with it’s ferns and mosses sprouting off rocks and trees, even more magical.

Rock Trail

Stairs on Rock Trail

Top of the hike

By Cyrus Gates, we were full on in the mist. We had no views whatsoever, except of the two picnic tables, one of which we chose for lunch. We encountered a few other hikers and one mountain biker there, also out on this cool last day of January. One gal, hiking with her tiny dog, was also a patient of  my current foot doctor and a previous knee doc, and we had a great time swapping stories of surgeries and recoveries as we ate. It was relaxing and fun, but we still had half way to go, starting off with the Chuckanut Ridge section, so we couldn’t get too lackadaisical.

Lunch Break — Michael, Kathie, the pooch, and fog!

Having just done a portion of this section in the boot, and knowing the ridge is challenging no matter what, I didn’t expect anything different. And it was really tough. Particularly difficult was navigating both the awkward left foot and the still recovering right knee, which doesn’t bend much beyond 90 degrees without pain. When doing a trail with obstacles and roots and rock slabs, it’s far preferable to have two fully functioning appendages — well four, actually if you count arms and poles. I had two — the upper two, but the lower two were definitely compromised. So it was slow progress, and we were already at the four hour mark on our journey with over half of the ridge section left to go.  We knew were setting no speed record!

I was relieved when we made it through the ridge without incident. Again, like when Shannon and I did it, the skies were cloudy, and only the vaguest view of a mountain top might appear between clouds and fog as we labored along. But, unlike 2014, we had no rain, for which I was totally grateful. And the trail was dry after a week or so of good weather leading up to our hike,  a blessing as well. I want to state for the record that I would NOT have undertaken this mission in rain or on a wet and muddy trail. It simply would have been too much.

Starting challenging section of Ridge Trail…

Navigating through…

And success!

And down to the finish!

After the ridge trail, it’s mostly downhill, and that is what is most painful about hiking in a boot. The muscles that hold your foot up are constantly working to stabilize in the boot. The boot can’t flex, but the ankle flexors can and do. The muscle fatigue was intense for the last five miles of the hike. It’s like my foot/ankle said “Ok, we got you through the tough stuff, now give us a break!!” It was easy going terrain wise, but really hard going with muscle fatigue and associated pain. We rested again just before the last 2.5 miles, down Fragrance Lake Trail and back to the car. But I was struggling with each step, and it was a mind over body experience. I knew I wasn’t hurting anything in the sense of surgical repair, but I was definitely hurting!

Last break before final descent

We made it back to the car by 5:00 pm, just as the daylight was fading for real. It took us seven hours total.  An event that put Shannon and I in nearly last place at just over 4 hours would definitely have landed Michael and I into the DNF (did not finish) category had we done the race for real. But we DID finish! And it was with a huge sense of accomplishment and relief that I took my boot off in Michael’s car, and celebrated freedom — for my foot, and from the past. Doing this route, on this day, was undoubtedly a celebration of overcoming. Similar to the last Fragrance Lake half with Shannon, it was taking a group of obstacles and a whole lot of reasons not to do something, and turning it around into an accomplishment and victory. I am proud of us for doing it! For Michael, it was his longest hike to date, and for me, it was one of the most challenging in it’s tedium.  But all of that just made the victory that much sweeter! Who needs chocolates on Valentine’s Day after that!

Boot’s a little worse for wear

 

NOTES: There is still time to sign up for the Fragrance Lake Half Marathon on 2/11/17. Click HERE for more information.

Also, for more information on hiking in the Chuckanut Mountains, click HERE.

 

 

 

 

After crutches – The Boot

The transition from crutches to full weight-bearing in a boot

Following time on crutches from an injury or surgery, getting back to full weight bearing will most likely be a gradual process. How gradual and how much weight bearing is allowed varies greatly depending on, among other things, whether or not bone repair was involved (fusion, broken bone, bunion repair) or just soft tissue (ligament, tendon, cartilage).  It also depends on each physician’s protocols and preferences. The usual process following my foot/ankle surgeries has been to start with 25% weight bearing,  then gradually increase to 50%, 75%, and eventually 100%.  That day, the day of full weight bearing, is always like Christmas! The ability to walk, even in a boot, greatly expands the available options for hiking and exploring in my favorite environment, the great outdoors.

This post covers things I’ve learned from extensive boot-hiking — some cautions, and lots of practical tips that make this activity fun and very doable. While it  mostly applies to being in a boot while fully walking, the section on Boot Care applies any time you strike boot to ground, crutches or no crutches.

About the boot

The boot my foot surgeon prefers is made by Top Shelf Orthopedics, and it’s called the Solar Walker. I love the name!  I have been through two of these boots in three years. It’s quite sturdy, although during this round of post-op I have really put it to the test. Hopefully, the boot can hang in there with me until we are done with each other!

Boot Hiking Strategies

  1. Wear a long sock underneath. Hands down, the best thing I have found to wear under the boot is long, over-the-knee socks. I purchased two pairs of Hue knee high socks at Macy’s three years ago, and those four socks have been a total win. The sock obviously covers my toes, and comes up over my knee. Sometimes it slips down, but never so far that it doesn’t reach above the top of the boot. When it is particularly cold outside, I wear an extra regular sock over the knee-high to keep my toes warm.
  2. Inflate the boot fully when walking for exercise. My boot has an inflate/deflate mechanism, which pumps air into all the padding surrounding the front of the leg and top of the foot. When hiking, I inflate it fully to add extra protection in those areas. Walking in a boot automatically throws your weight forward, and without extra padding on the shin this can be uncomfortable over a long period of time.
  3. Wear a shoe on the alternate foot that is of similar height to the boot.  This is challenging, as the boot sole is quite thick. To normalize my gait as much as possible, I have tried various different shoes and insoles in my shoes. The Altra Olympus (as opposed to the Altra Lone Peak that I usually wear) has a higher sole, and I have used that shoe some. Hoka’s also have a higher sole.  I know many trail runners love those, although I have not tried them. I have tried using two insoles in a Lone Peak, and that seems to help too. It’s a balancing act here, in more ways than one. I have to make sure the right foot is supported and comfortable while dealing with the left (in boot) and trying to walk as evenly as possible. My advice? Experiment with lifts in the shoe, or higher and thicker soles, to see what works best for you.
  4. ALWAYS USE POLES!  After my first foot/ankle surgery in January 2015, I was talking to the PA during that magical check up that gave me the OK to fully weight bear. He suggested walking with a cane to help with balance and lessen the intensity and awkwardness of walking any distance in the boot. Somehow, I couldn’t see myself out on the local trails with a cane. I asked him about hiking poles. He said yes, that would be a good alternative. In that moment, I became a complete and total hiking-with-poles advocate! I had owned poles for a few years, but rarely used them to hike. I (ignorantly and incorrectly) assumed poles were “just for old people” and therefore I didn’t need them. I could count on one hand the number of times I had used them before this conversation. Now, suddenly, they were an ally that would allow me to get out and about much sooner! I started using poles for each and every walk/hike I take with the boot. Even on a simple trail like Lake Padden I use them (at least in the beginning). Poles help generate the extra support necessary to get up hills in a boot that offers no ankle flexion. And they help slow and control downhill motion by acting as brakes. Numerous studies show that using poles reduces impact on joints by 20%, as well as dispersing the load off of the lower body by incorporating in the upper. And it goes without saying that using poles helps with balance. I can’t say enough about these advantages of using poles both in a boot and not. I simply would not be able to do the amount of post-op hiking, or hiking and backpacking in general with foot/ankle/knee surgical history, without them.

Boot Care

Here is the reality of winter hiking on trails in and around Bellingham — it’s muddy! I have tried various methods in an attempt to keep the boot clean while hiking in wet and muddy conditions — among them a garbage bag over the boot, and a thick sock over the boot. In my experience, I have yet to find a solution that works, as the action of walking has destroyed any cover I’ve put on the boot, and I end up walking in mud anyway. Hence, I now skip the covers, and deal with mud and pine needles on a daily basis. Here are some things that DO work for helping fight dirty-boot syndrome:

  1. Keep towels in the car.  Some people have dog towels in their car, I have boot towels. And a water source to get one wet. I always take the boot off and shake it out and clean it as thoroughly as possible after a walk. It’s never perfect, but allows me to go on with my day without tracking mud and such to my post-hike activities.
  2. Shake the boot over a throw carpet at home.  When I remove the boot, I do so over something I can shake outside. Even with meticulous cleaning, needles and dirt remain, and I can better contain the mess if I can shake it outside and not get it all over the house.
  3. Sleep in a pillow case!  This is a new strategy learned this year. At the end of this round,  I will have been over four weeks in the boot — day and night. With all the hiking,  I kept encountering small pebbles, pine needles, and other particulate in the bed despite my best efforts. The PA suggested sleeping with a pillow case over the boot, and VOILA! I have no more trail debris in bed with me at night. 🙂

    Boot ready for bed!

Some cautions about hiking with a boot:

  1. Start slowly!  Like crutching for exercise, don’t go out three miles on your first boot hike! Start with a manageable distance that you KNOW you can do. Build from there. It takes different muscles and taxes the body differently to hike in a boot. Feeling good for two miles doesn’t mean you will feel good for four. Build up slowly to both more distance and more challenging terrain.
  2. Remember, you have no ankle flexion.  Walking in a boot reminds me of what my dad went through for the last 20 years of his life. By the age of 63, after numerous failed ankle surgeries, my dad had both ankles completely fused. This left him with no ability to flex his foot up (dorsiflex) or down (plantar flex). I remember trying to take him rock climbing at Joshua Tree National Park in California back when I was really into that.  What was an easy route for my then husband and me was simply not doable for him, as he could not dorsiflex his ankles enough to ascend even an easy climb. That is what walking in a boot is like. The normal heel/toe rock of walking all takes place in a stiff boot with no ability to flex the ankle. On flat ground, it’s not too bad, but add in some elevation, and it gets really challenging. Add in elevation AND obstacles or uneven terrain (like roots, rocks, or a slanted trail), and it definitely requires full focus to make it happen. Here is where poles and caution really come in. The surface of the boot is much broader (and stiffer) than a normal shoe, so wedging it in or angling it with agility is not going to happen. Conquering hills requires slowing down, using poles, and leaning in a bit more to use the tip of my boot. Caution must be used with the latter if your ailment is in the forefoot, as putting too much pressure here can be painful and, worse, detrimental to healing.
  3. Common areas of pain to watch for. In addition to the obvious ones from your particular surgery, the most common types of pain I experience specific to the boot are the back of the knee (where the hamstrings connect — because all the walking, especially up hill, is with a more or less straight leg, and the hamstrings have to pick up the slack on this). The calf muscle in a boot is rendered useless, as anyone can tell you if they have ever been in a boot or cast and viewed their withered calf at the end of it. And, in the boot itself, the muscles responsible for dorsiflexion are constantly stressed inside the boot in an effort to stabilize and simply to make the action of going uphill happen.  Those muscles are the ones most likely to cry out during a long hike and for awhile afterwards. I always see how recovery goes overnight…if I feel fine in the morning, I am OK for another round.
  4. Take breaks to elevate the foot on long hikes.  Much foot and ankle surgery involves long periods of time sitting with an elevated foot. To go out on a long walk (or back to work all day standing up) takes easing back into. Take breaks during your hike to stop and elevate your foot.  I try to prop my foot up at lunch and at regular intervals on long hikes.

    This method of duct taping did not work…

    Wear and tear…notice the heel is down to metal

  5. Too much hiking causes the boot to fall apart!  This post-operative round is the first time my boot has disintegrated significantly on the bottom. Either this boot is less well made the previous, or I have just used it more. Regardless of the reason, I have struggled immensely with the heel portion of the boot falling apart and coming off. The reason I mention it here under cautions, is because the only time I have fallen in the boot was when I slipped, on dry pavement, with the heel of the boot that is worn down to metal. Metal on pavement and me not expecting it led to a rather spectacular fall, with both feet flying out from under me! No injuries, but now I am acutely aware of walking on a hard flat surface. And I am still trying to figure out how to get duct tape to hold together for a long hike.

What constitutes a long hike in a boot?

With this being my third (and hopefully last!) year of surgeries, I have started to expand what I thought was previously possible hiking in a boot. I have added in Galbraith Mountain, a mountain bikers mecca with an extensive, never-ending array of trails. I have also hiked to Oyster Dome, via Lily and Lizard Lakes and the Samish Overlook, a total of about 11 miles. I have also taken the boot for a spin up on Chuckanut Ridge Trail, which offered the most challenging terrain so far. This hike on Chuckanut inspired me, for various reasons, to consider doing the Fragrance Lake Half Marathon route…not the race itself, as I could not make the cut off time and would feel very silly doing it in a boot,  but the designated 13.1 mile route. I have done it several times before, and love where goes — including Chuckanut Ridge, Fragrance Lake, and the Rock Trail. I hope to do that on Monday, 1/31, a final boot hurrah before getting out of it (I hope) on 2/6.

Top of Oyster Dome

On Chuckanut Ridge Trail

On Lily-Lizard Trail

STAY TUNED TO LEARN IF I HAVE HALF MARATHON SUCCESS!

 

 

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