Tag Archives: hiking

Culture Shock! Hiking the Narrow Roads of the Deep North

This past month I finally bought myself a Fukushima trail map, in preparation for the coming summer. I think I need some more maps, however. Just arriving in Japan last year, I had pretty low confidence on navigating roads, and reading posted signs about land usage etc. so I refrained from any major excursions. To be honest, after going on a minor hike through a nature park last spring, I got stopped and questioned by the police. I was terrified, and since they took so much time running my papers and were asking me all sorts of questions even though they had said something to the effect of “this is just a patrol,” I got really freaked out and worried that I did something wrong. So anyway, this Sunday was going to be my first adventure guided purely via the guidance of my shiny new map I had been staring at for a few weeks…Friday of course, I had a flashback to the first hike that I went on in Virginia. At that time, I had a map and choose a trail that a guidebook had recommended. After walking for a few miles, my friend and I found that we had inadvertently wandered quite a ways off trail. I pulled out my compass and map and set us back on route, (which meant that we would be following a stream bed for a ways until it linked us back to the trail) but in the depths of that I had to surrender my extra food and water to my companion to keep his spirits up while dealing with his questioning, “Are you sure that that is North?”

Anyways, as I searched my belongings for a compass around 8PM, I realized that my compass was probably sitting in a garage in America, so I had to go buy a new one. Consequentially I learned from my local gear supplier that I needed a refresher course on how to use a compass properly. (What , me who constantly confuses East and West, forget how to use a compass? Yes.) What with GPS, familiar geographic regions with easily memorized routes, and just plain carelessness, I had gotten rather complacent and let any trace of mountaineering skills go out the window…

Which brings me to Saturday morning: It’s hot, humid and freight trains roll by apartment one after the other. I check my phone for the time 4:30, and note a missed call and several text messages that came in while I was asleep. Vulgar words and photographs sent by a co-worker I had met once at a training conference months ago. I regretted having a smart phone instantly, and decided that rather than get pissed off that there was no option to send an electrocute offender button, I might as well just get an early start to the day, since the weather forecast was sketchy and my ambitions high.

I followed my map to the projected start point to find that the route was closed. No problem, I took a new bearing and went to a more accessible start point…and man was I tired, and just ready to have a gentle wander rather than a great adventure. So I found that I was walking along the Shin-Oku-no-Hosomichi (the new narrow roads of the deep north)a walking trail network whose segments connects all of the Tohoku region.

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I circumnavigated some lakes, and found the alternate and unlabeled access point to the trail that I had originally wanted to take…The first trail blaze was an ominous red circle spray painted above a bear scratched tree.

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It was then that, I pulled out my compass to confirm and I had that dumb moment where I realized that reading very clearly labeled Japanese maps was challenging, and that though compasses will point you where you want to go, you don’t always believe the route they are telling you to take. It’s kind of a cruel joke.

Anyway, I had already decided at this point that I was going to be returning to my home before the weather changed, so I just wanted to scout the trail out for future use. I maybe went a kilometer or two, and it was obvious that if it rained, this trail would be treacherous, and it would be easy to get lost. There were a lot of small streams with the potential to get glutted in the event of rain, and the trail was narrow enough that a misstep in wet weather could send you down a steep slope. In addition to this, the trail had a number of fairly small downed trees that made continuously sight lining the route fairly challenging. This is something I would call my first clearly defined moment of Culture Shock! There are some common flora and fauna between Japan and America, but the environment is clearly different. I had a moment of rediscovering that after a year of fairly routinized adventure, and heavy language study that I had no knowledge base of the environment to back me up in the event of an emergency. It was sad to admit it, but ultimately, I’m a child here in Japan. So now have an inventory of things that I need to learn about if I want to become familiarized with the lay of the land here! It might take a lifetime…However, I felt happy that I had located this trail, and now it’s filed away for a day with better weather!

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Vermillion Cliffs @ Wire Pass / Buckskin Gulch

Image That there crack in the rocks is what some people call a slot canyon. Wide enough for a person to fit through roughly shoulder to shoulder. The day before I was going to hike here, I climbed up along the northernmost part of the Arizona trail, looking out over the Vermillion Cliffs and received a mild pelting of rain, watched an ephemeral rainbow against a gray plastered sky, enjoyed life. (20% of the forecast area was receiving a light shower, but the next few days promised good weather.)

Getting out into the canyon, the weather was gusty with hefty grey clouds marking their presence – not appropriate weather for the Utah/Arizona border. I was disgruntled that the weather might make it a bad idea for me to be out, but I made some concessions to this. I went through a small portion of the canyon with some chagrin before getting up onto higher ground. Some inkling of (lets call it) self preservation encouraged me to play a game.

Rules: Climb upwards and along the walls of the canyon, belly crawl over or simply peer down into the canyon as appropriate and identify any points of exit in case of flash flooding. If you can’t ID a point for a distance longer than you think you can run at a reasonable speed…don’t go through. (Buckskin gulch is the longest known slot canyon in North America and is many miles long.)

I played this way for an hour or so, admiring the flora drinking up water seeps on the canyon walls. The wind began whipping up with more veracity, sending tufts of sand up into the air.

Observing the weather, I said, “Ok Buckskin gulch, see you when I bag some canyoneering skills, and find some more statistics on flash flooding.” I don’t like to think of myself as particularly anxious about being outdoors, but canyons are not familiar territory for me at all. I know that in the rainforest of Washington, I’ve come close to uncomfortable evenings stranded on the wrong side of rivers before. (Yay hiking partners and swift-water crossings to save the day.)Image As I came closer to the trailhead a number of folks had begun to cross my path ready for their casual stroll through the canyon…Ah, what can you do? Busiest trail head I’ve been on in the past 2 weeks and everyone starts LATE, wonder how far they get! Hope they have fun!

To recall we are small

If you look closely here, you might notice a person standing on a snow coated log in this photo. This person is waving myself and another member of the party to follow, to chance  this log suspended over an icy river of snow melt.

Almost immediately the risk was repaid with a view of glacial blue pools & the fluid dynamics of water shooting over boulders many times our height.

The weather cycled through rain, hail, sleet, and sun on our drive to this trail, but it held out for us on our hike, illuminating moss with sunlight. It only deigned to sprinkle us with dry snow crystals as we made our return trip to the trailhead.

This was just one small part of an enchanting journey through Fletcher Canyon. Many other joys and perils were shared; observing shelf fungi, gigantic Devil’s Club, lunch in a snowfort within a salmonberry thicket, and limping back down the trail clutching an alder branch after my knee decided to violently flair up in protest.

Not too many miles away from this trail, stands the world’s largest spruce tree. It is ~191′ tall, with a circumference of 58’11”. You can climb up its root system and lie down upon this ancient being. It is thought to be over 1,000 years old.