Tongariro Northern Circuit: 3 days on Mt Doom

It’s been a while since I posted. To refresh: Before setting out on a 3 day circuit that crosses the shoulder of what is known in Nerdom as Mt. Doom, I had high tea at the Chateau Tongariro. It was delicious, made it so I could pack one less meal, and also made me slightly nauseous because apparently hiking an hour after you’ve had enough sugar for 4 people isn’t the best. #WorthIt.

Day one was glorious. I was the only person I saw on trail until I hit the Mangatepopo Hut and Campsite. There were moments when I was literally crying because I was so in love with life, and also probably all of the sugar loosened my leash on my emotions.

164.JPGI met a Canadian named Kate, and we nerded out a bit over the fact that we were camping at the base of Mt. Doom. The Hut Warden was also from Canada, and told us a bit about her job.

“In North America, my job in conservation is to save the animals. Here, if it’s a mammal, I’m pretty much trying to kill it.” She asked us to please pack out our trash, “Unless it’s an apple core. We’ll roll those in a cinnamon-poison mix and it will make a possum very happy for their last meal.”

So that was cool.

I woke up early the next morning to try to beat the 2,000 people who do the Tongariro Crossing each day. The Crossing is a 5 hour-ish long section that crosses some of the lava fields and craters of Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom) and doesn’t require a permit. Because of its popularity, there were many times when I could have reached out my arms and formed a conga line with the people in front of me. But I try not to get mad at other people who are enjoying the same thing that I do, and in the end, it was still a fun day.

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177.JPGThe descent is about a quarter-mile of volcanic sand covering a steep slope. It took a long time and I was passed by a lot of people, so I was grateful to reach the turn-off where the Crossing splits from the Circuit.

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I descended into a plain covered with dozens of fins of black pumice. The trail wound through these, so I ate lunch in the filming site of the Emyn Muil. By the end of the day, I was feeling very sorry for the hobbits, as it was hot and I was tired even without the great burden of the One Ring. Luckily, when I reached my campsite, I found a spot just feet away from a little creek that had been dammed enough for a bath.

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I was just beginning to be sad that I only had a few days left in New Zealand, when I woke up on day three and found my whole view shrouded in gray clouds. I hiked out, waved goodbye to where I thought the mountains must be, and headed north for one last adventure before my plane took off.

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Getting schooled by backpacking kids.

I know, my absence from the Internet the last four months has been heart-wrenching for, like, almost one person. I’d like to pretend it was spent doing something rad, like backpacking somewhere even Verizon can’t get a signal or using slang that didn’t become dated over a decade ago, but actually I’ve been like working and being responsible, which has its own sort of mystique if you squint.

However, I really want to finish blogging my trip from last summer, so, as the weather threatens snow and I put every movement through the “Is this really worth going more than 4 feet away from my fireplace” litmus test, let’s take a few posts to reminisce about August.

At the end of my last post I had reached Ollalie Lake and feasted on a $5 bag of Doritos. Usually if a store is more expensive than Walgreens’ non-sale prices, I refuse to shop there on principle, but dang those Doritos were delicious.

However, what I didn’t write that I spent most of the night worrying about whether my mom was worrying about me. I’d promised to call her at Ollalie, but travelers be warned: that lake sits in some rare ripple of the time-space continuum in which you can buy Doritos but not get a signal. So I fretted over that until I fell asleep. One bonus about thru-hiking: “Until I fell asleep” is really only like 8 minutes.

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Some totally not-dorky hikers right there! (From left to right: Fire Ant, Braids, Netflix [me], and Hot Tamale)

The next morning I hiked until I got cell reception, then called my mom at a spot just before we entered the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. The trail passes through their land for about 23 miles, and it was lovely. Bonus: I saw like four bunnies.

We camped that night at the Warm Springs River, which was not at all warm but did feature a lovely bridge. As we approached the river we met a family camping, three young kids and a mom. Although we all admired their tenacity in taking on backpacking, and I hope to be half as brave as that woman when I have kids, I wasn’t disappointed to find a large open campsite on the other side of the river, where noise invasion wouldn’t be an issue. We spent the evening trying to guess whether they were on an overnight trip or a couple days.

Of course, the next morning they passed us at a spring, and we discovered that not only were the kids totally comfortable on their adventure, but they had gone as many miles at that point as I had, in not that much more time. As they approached I noticed the little boy had a lizard-like toy dangling from his pack’s straps. 

“I like your dinosaur,” I said when they paused to get water.

“Actually it’s a dragon,” he corrected me. I now saw the shiny purple wings on top of it and was ashamed at my previous ignorance. He graciously accepted my apologies, however, then casually mentioned how much he loves Starbursts. But we all knew that trick. Casually mentioning the food you’re craving around new acquaintance is the first step towards them digging in their bag and offering you that food if you have it. I didn’t have Starburst, and I wasn’t about to offer my Skittles for fear that he would actually take them. Not my most generous moment, but it happened. Luckily, his mom mentioned that the only candy they had left was Skittles and some chocolate, thus absolving my guilt. All in all, I left them hoping that my future family will one day be as badass as them. #Goals.

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 ***This post has been updated to clarify that I’m not an absolutely terrible person in not offering a little kid Skittles because he already had them. Which in any other context I wouldn’t feel remotely bad about, so I probably shouldn’t now, either. Hiking is weird.***

Three Days on Mount Jefferson

Around 11 years ago, in the summer before my 8th grade year, my dad looked at his map of the Jefferson Wilderness Area and pointed thoughtfully at one of the trails. “I think,” he said, “I want to try out this Breitenbrush trail this weekend. You wanna come?” he asked.

Of course I wanted to go. So we packed some snacks and sunscreen and, knowing my dad, left well before the crack of dawn. The hike was lovely and became one of our favorites, but perhaps the most life-changing thing that happened on that trip was me seeing a sign for the Pacific Crest Trail.

“That goes from Mexico to  Canada,” Dad explained when I asked what it was. That was the day that I decided I wanted to attempt a thru-hike.

The sign for the trail we took that day

Even though my thru-hike was thwarted by a lame knee, I still approached Jeff on my section hike with a sense of excitement and returning to where it all began. We arrived in the Jefferson Wilderness Area the day that we left Big Lake Youth Camp.

On day 1 in the Jefferson Wilderness Area, the PCT climbed up through bleached burnt forests and the baby firs that are trying to take their place. Purple wildflowers and red Indian Paintbrush were in bloom, even though by the end of the day we would camp among viny maple that are already turning red. Huckleberry bushes provided snacks for us at every break. It was warm, but a stiff breeze cooled my neck and played harmonica with the trees.

Hiking the South side of Three Fingered Jack

We passed on the South side of Three Fingered Jack, just above the treeline. A couple of hunters were glassing the screw field for mountain goats, and I might have felt bad for scaring away their quarry if they’d bothered putting a leash on their two dogs. For about a mile we could look up and see the changing shape of the boulder. Despite nearly circumventing it, we never figured out how it got its name. 

Suddenly the trail in front of us turned a corner. “Cue the Lord of the Rings music,” I said, so Braids and I broke out in winded orchestral impersonations. We broke over the hilltop to find our first close-up of Mount Jefferson. Perhaps just because this is my favorite mountain, I felt like I was home. Jeff was a king surveying his cloudless domain, bleached acres of burnt trees nothing more than his white robes to match his snowy crown.

Me and Mr. Jefferson!

After a few requisite pictures, we continued on to where we could see a few other hikers resting across the canyon. The trail led us to a spur just a few hundred yards from the boulder atop Three Fingered Jack. There, we had a snack and listened to a couple of weekend hikers tell us what badasses we are. I didn’t feel like one at the time, but it was a nice encouragement. We also meet Hot Tamale and Moon Train, who camped with us and the weekend hikers that night at a pond a few miles later.

Snack breaks are the best breaks.

Three Fingered Jack in the evening.

Day 2 in the Jefferson Wilderness Area was also a long uphill climb, though there weren’t as many burnt areas. At one point we stopped for a rest after only a mile–well, my hiking partners did. I stopped twice in that mile. My Poptarts called to me.

Just before that I was zoning out, listening to music, on a grueling shale hillside, trying to remember why I’d thought this would be fun. I heard a noise behind me. Apparently, when startled, I have the capacity to react in much the same way as a pirate being challenged to a duel. I spun around, trekking pole raised against the threat, shouting an unintelligible warning–only to find a rather attractive hiker standing frozen and alarmed on the path behind me. I gasped an apology as I let him pass. Safe to say we can probably scratch him off my list of potential soulmates. As it turns out, Braids fell down when he tried to pass her, so he was probably thinking PCT girls are really weird during that mile, anyways.

We camped that night by Milk Creek. We got there when it was almost dark, and all the campsites were full for a few miles around. Too tired to walk the three miles to the next marked campsite, we threw our sleeping bags down 2×2 on a side trail and hoped not to regret our tentless state.

Milk Creek. Also in the evening.

The final day we climbed 6 miles, passed the spot where I first learned of the PCT, ate lunch in Jefferson Park, and then climbed another 2 miles up Jefferson Ridge. There, I could look back at Mount Jefferson, then turn 180° and see Mount Hood, Adams, and St. Helens ahead. We ate more huckleberries here.

Captain Hook! Oh, wait…it’s Hood. Nevermind.

Our goal for the evening was Ollalie Lake Campground. I was craving a burger and needed to call my mom. Unfortunately they had neither burgers nor cell phone reception. However, I invested in a bag of Doritos for dinner. Basically the same thing.

Just before reaching Ollalie, I had one of the most peaceful moments on trail. I paused by Upper Lake to lay down and rest a few minutes. The sunshine glimmered off the water. As I looked up, I saw a strand of spider web caught in the breeze. It reflected the sunlight as it floated above the lake and into the open air.

Mount Jefferson and Jefferson Park from the north.

A Vacation State

As Fire Ant, Braids, Miguel, and I make our way through Oregon, we tend to have the same conversation with fellow hikers at every spring and shady lunch spot we find.

Us: We’re really loving Oregon.

Them: Oh yeah. It’s great. I can’t believe it’s gonna be over so soon.

Us: Yeah, crazy how time flies.

Them: I know! I’ve got four days of food in my pack and then I’ll be in Cascade Locks.

Us: Yes…four…

Them: I mean, you can do 30, 35 miles a day here, easy.

Us: Oh, yeah. Definitely.

Them: Well, see you up trail.

Us: Yeah, see ya.

Them: *walks away*

Us: We’re definitely never seeing them again.

Going roughly half the speed of many hikers, though, we’ve come to accept the mantra, “Last one to Canada wins.” The trail angel Legend gave us this saying a few days ago: “When I hiked in 2013, I set two records: I took the longest to get to Canada, and I had the most fun.”

We met Legend and another trail angel, Coppertone, just after crossing highway 242, North of the Three Sisters. We had had a late start to the day, so we hiked 2 miles across lava fields in the gathering darkness, my headlamp and high-top boots sparing my ankles some nasty turns.

As we reached the first available campsite, we noticed a group of other hikers sitting in lawn chairs. “Welcome!” Coppertone said. “Would you like a root beer float?”

The correct answer to that is always yes, so we stayed up a few more minutes to drink our floats before finding a spot to throw down our stuff. I cowboy camped for the first time, not so much because I wanted to, but because I was too lazy at that point to set up my tent. I slept well, though.

The next day we woke up to Legend cooking pancakes, and we had a delicious breakfast before setting off again. Backpacking is no picnic. But, in this case it actually was.

Bad at math, too

I used to be decent at math. However, in the first week on trail, I managed to mess up some fairly simple equations, resulting in us all arriving at Shelter Cove with practically enough food to make it to Cascade Locks.

The miscalculation began at Fish Lake Resort. Just as Miguel, Fire Ant and I were about to leave, some Australian people eating breakfast informed us that they’d heard we would probably be turned back from Crater Lake due to the spread of the Bybee Creek Fire. That sucked. None of us wanted to miss Crater, and we really didn’t want to be turned back and have to walk two days with only half a day of food left.

A call to the ranger station didn’t help. All I learned was that fires are unpredictable by nature, and they could neither confirm nor deny the possibility that somebody might be turned around in the next few days. I hung up slightly discouraged.

We rapidly formed a new plan, though: the three of us, along with another hiker we’d met named Shakespeare, would go into Klamath Falls, stay the night at my dear friend’s house, and catch the 9am shuttle to Crater Lake on Saturday.

Best trail Angel ever!

On the shuttle, we met Mike, Mike, Michelle, and Joe. They had just flown in from across the country and were heading out for their first section hike. “Do you guys need some food? We packed way too much.” It so happened that their food was really great, so even though we had 3 days of food in our packs and another 5 waiting for us at Crater Lake, we took it.

The shuttle dropped us off at the Rim Village. We really wanted to go to Cleetwood Cove on the opposite side of the lake, but there was no bus service to get us there. All day long, as we ate a fancy meal in the lodge restaurant and filmed a lip sync video near all the other tourists, we would casual-loudly say, “Man, I wish I could get to Cleetwood Cove. If only we had a ride there so we could fulfill our lifelong dreams of taking a boat ride and jumping in the lake. Ah, to have a ride there.”

Me, Fire Ant, Shakespeare, and Airlift

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Around 3, though, someone did offer to take us to Mazama Village, where we were to camp and pick up our food. He was a former thru-hiker, having done the trail in ’86 and again in ’01. His first time, they only had 9 resupply points, and had one stretch with 21 days of food. I’m real glad I live now and not then.

The moment we arrived at Mazama, we heard some astounding news: far from planning to turn people back, the forest rangers had come into camp and told the backlog of 28 hikers that they planned to open the Rim Trail at 8am the next morning.

This was fantastic news, except that we had spent most of our lunch trying to figure out exactly how much food we would need to go from Highway 138 to Shelter Cove–4 days, we guessed. We hastily redid the calculations, adding in about 45 miles and concluding that we were now 6 days from Shelter Cove and our next resupply. 

No matter; we had the food. I even gave away a few Snickers bars and tuna packets because I had so many. The next day we took the trolley back to the Rim, so as to skip a 4-mile uphill hike. We arrived at the Rim at the same time as the purists, who were loudly praising themselves for not being like those cheating trolley-riders. Considering I already skipped 3 months of the trail, I don’t think hiking up Mazama would have won me cool points with them, anyways. We left the Rim with 5 liters of water each, for a 16-mile dry stretch. 

The view of Crater Lake

“Anything from the trolley, dear?” Fire Ant, me, and Steven, who was in the greyhound to Ashland with me.

The hike was gorgeous. We unfortunately lost Shakespeare to a bum knee a couple miles in, but apart from that it went well. A cold breeze kept us cool as we hiked and forced us into our puffies when we stopped to eat. We circled the lake for about 5 miles before the trail dropped into a long flat stretch, on which we did 3 miles in 49 minutes. Yes, I did feel like a bit of a badass after that.

Mount Thielsen

It was only when we reached Highway 138 that evening, as opposed to the next, that we realized how bad my calculations had been. When I had said we needed 6 days of food, I was going off the mileage for the official PCT. However, the Rim Trail is about 9 miles shorter than the PCT section it bypasses. Furthermore, the 4 miles we cut with the trolley, plus another 8 later in the hike as we took the Oregon Skyline Trail instead of the official PCT, meant we rolled into Shelter Cove after only 4 days, with approximately enough food in our packs to get us to Canada.

Standing at the highest point on the PCT (in Oregon and Washington…we don’t count those darn Sierras.)

Ah well. We met Mike, Joe, and Michelle again, who had lost 4 toenails and the other Mike, and were battling shin splints. They had decided to cut out early. They offered us the rest of their food, which we gladly picked through despite our plenty. Swedish fish and beef jerky–I guess there’s always room for more.

Diamond View Lake. Beautiful campsites 🙂

Mail drops on the PCT: Putting the Pro in Procrastination

Considering I leave this week for the Pacific Crest Trail, I thought it might be fun to, ya know, figure out what I’m going to be eating on the trip. Here’s the problem: I’m a lousy cook, even in the best of circumstances.

Case in point: I once was in charge of making macaroni and cheese for some high school boys at church. High school boys.

“Surely I can do this,” I thought. “High school boys will eat anything!”

Then, midway through his first bowl, one of them turned to me and asked, “Did you put sour cream in this?”

I had not, in fact, put sour cream in it. Yet despite his raving starvation just before lunch, he didn’t finish his bowl, and we threw away over half the batch of Mac and cheese.

Luckily, Campbell’s makes a wide variety of delicious soups that are almost idiot proof, so I’ll just eat those for the rest of my life.

Except for when I go on long backpacking trips that necessitate higher calories and also lighter foods. What to do?

The answer, of course, is simple:

1) Go to Winco and buy every container of food that looks like I might be able to prepare it on a backpacking stove, or, even better, without a stove;

2) Take the food home, thinking the while drive about what you really should have gotten;

3) Toss it all in a heap on the living room floor and stare at it for half an hour just in case it suddenly decides to prepare itself;

4) Grab random items from the floor and take them to the kitchen to test, while singing madly like the chef on The Little Mermaid;

5) Realize Mom is pulling into the driveway and run outside to ask her to brace herself for the mess inside.

I did all of these. She came in, saw kitchen littered with small pots, spilled couscous, and half-filled bags of trail mix and said, “Oh, this isn’t so bad.”

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She then walked into the living room and said, “Oh, this is bad.”

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Fortunately, after four kids and three grandkids, she’s developed a calm in the face of disaster. Just another reason she’s the best mom ever.

I ended up discovering that I have an affinity for couscous and not cooking anything, so my game plan at this point is to go stoveless for the first 200 miles, at which point I’ll be so grateful for hot food that I won’t even care if my Mac and Cheese tastes like sour cream.

Passing Out In First Aid Class

So I guess I’m more squeamish than I thought I was.

In preparation for hiking the PCT, I thought, “I should really take a wilderness first aid class.” When I saw that REI was going to have a class a week before I leave, I signed up without hesitation.

I would have been better off hesitating, though, because about a week later I realized that weekend was also Easter weekend, and since I worked Thanksgiving and Christmas, I kind of wanted to be with my family. Fortunately, they offer the class nearly every month in the Portland area, so after a brief period on the waiting list, I managed to get into one last weekend instead.

The first half hour was mainly business details: sign these papers, tell us why you’re taking the class, don’t be a creeper when you touch people, the usual. They gave is some snazzy stickers and a pocket guide to take on our journeys. Then they showed us how to do a patient evaluation system.

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“Suppose you come across an injured mountain biker in the woods. Here’s a poem to help you remember remember what to do.” A poem!! And that said the English major would never pay off…

Everything was great. I resolved to begin frequenting mountain bike paths just so I could show off my about-to-be-developed skills.

That resolve cracked when they showed us how to check for spinal injuries.

Imagine this: you find an injured stranger in the woods. You don’t know exactly what’s wrong with them, so you do a patient evaluation. You’ve evaluated head, thorax, and extremities, and the only thing left to do is…risk paralyzing them by rolling them over and pushing all their vertebrae.

It’s much more technical than that, of course. You hold their neck still and keep them aligned so that their potentially fragile spines won’t snap in 2, but I didn’t know that and all I heard was, “You want to look for crunchy spots along the spine.”

Crunchy.
Spots.
Spine.

Oh no.

The nausea hit me first, but I fought it back with some deep breaths and a sip of water. The room began to pixelate, then go black. Our instructor’s voice sounded like she was talking out of a tin can. I folded my arms on the table and laid my head on the back of my hand, only to pull it back moments later dripping with sweat. I pulled my coat on, even though when I’d walked in the room had felt too warm. I looked up at the instructor, who was continuing her speech on crunchy vertebrae while glancing frequently at me. When the room began to swim again, I put my head back down, knowing that if I did pass out, at last they had a nifty poem to help them remember how to care for me.

“You’re so not cut out for this,” a voice in my head declared. “Better to leave now and forfeit the money than to spend the whole day blacking out.”

A stronger voice in me answered. “That’s a great idea, except you’ll pass out before you get to the door.”

So I stayed. With a few sips of water and a change of topic, I managed to cling to my consciousness and soon felt normal.

It turned out to be a really useful and interesting course, and I would totally recommend anyone heading into the mountains to take it. After a mere 16 hours of instruction, I’m officially certified in Wilderness First Aid.

Feel free to sound the trumpets and throw a parade in honor of the occasion whenever you have time. Just do me a favor and call someone else if your spine feels crunchy.

Permission Granted!

After a whole 17 days of delayed gratification, I received my permit to hike the Pacific Crest Trail this evening. And yes, it does feel fantastic.

 

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That is one nice letterhead.

Am I totally ready to hit the trail?

Sure! Right after I

  • buy a tent
  • get my California Campfire Permit
  • Get my permit to enter Canada
  • Buy a couple days’ worth of food
  • Print my maps

Between that and graduating college in 4 weeks, the next two months should be a breeze.

The Deep Questions

Why am I here? What’s the purpose?

If you’re talking about life in general, great questions! However, my psychology 201 professor said we need to guard against over-sharing, or else people might try to give us jackets without armholes. That would make blogging difficult, so I’ll hold off on answering those.

As to why I’m here, on WordPress, blogging under a URL that could either be seen as funny or pessimistic, or maybe just stupid, the answer has a few parts. And here they are!

  1. I need an outlet to share my mildly embarrassing stories from REI, and other backpacking adventures. Not only is it fun for me, I hope other people will relate to them and maybe even feel like they don’t need to look like a Jeep commercial in order to enjoy the wilderness.
  2. Everyone else is doing it. Who am I to resist a fad?
  3. Got to use the English major somewhere.

In all seriousness, I’m gearing up for a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike in 2016. There are approximately a bajilion trail journals out there that cover that same topic, and they mostly say the same things. I can’t promise any new viewpoints, but the nice thing about the internet is no one has to read this except my mom and sister. I figure I might as well take advantage of a way to connect with fellow hikers, and give non-hikers a sense of the humiliation joy that preparing for such a trek brings!

Purpose statement: over and out.

Beaten by the Bearvault

Question: Which bear is best?

Is that a ridiculous question? Are there basically two schools of thought? If that’s your answer:

  1. Let’s be friends. I always need people to finish my quotes from The Office, otherwise things get kind of awkward.
  2. False. The best bear, at least when backpacking, is the one that doesn’t come into your camp and eat your food, and/or you.

With this in mind, and in preparation for a future PCT thru-hike and a more imminent trip to Glacier, I set out last week to buy a bear canister.

A what?

  • Bear Canister. n. An often bulky container designed to keep bears out and your delicious snacks in.

Okay, I don’t work for Merriam-Webster. But you get the idea. 

Bear canisters are important for several reasons:

  1. No one wants to get two days into a four-day hike and have all their food disappear down Bongo’s gullet.
  2. Bears who get used to eating people-food can become so aggressive that the parks service has to kill them in order to keep people safe.
  3. They’re required in Glacier National Park and several areas on the Pacific Crest Trail. 

As Linus said in A Charlie Brown Christmas, “Those are good reasons.”

Because I am mildly indecisive and never make a gear decision without consulting a trillion online sources, I compared four different models and eventually settled on one that looked coolest was lightweight and came highly recommended.

That is how I settled on the Bearvault.

Feel free to click that link. Look at that Bearvault. It’s beautiful. The clear blue plastic evokes visions of icicles and intergalactic travel at the same time. It has a black lid that practically screams, “Turn this for Nutella.” It has ridges that help the Bearvault stay secure on your pack. At least, that’s what the super helpful REI saleswoman from my previous blog entry said.

She also said I could take it out of the box and test it out. 

But really, what sort of person needs to test out a container for food? It’s not like it could be, say, mildly confusing to open! It’s not like anyone could be so weak that even when they figured out how to open it, they couldn’t push the tabs in far enough to actually accomplish the task!

Or maybe both those things could happen. 

Did happen. 

To me. 

To my surprise, I discovered the directions are really important on things like this. After five minutes of frustration at not being able to get that stupid black lid off that beautiful blue cylinder, I pulled out the instruction pamphlet that I had thrown across the room earlier. Turns out my fingers were about a centimeter above where they needed to be. Two seconds later, my two-year-old nephew, who had been trying to help but was now crying from frustration (or maybe because auntie kept taking this really cool looking thing away from him), started clapping as the lid spun off easily.

I felt so accomplished at being able to unscrew that lid, I tried it a few more times with nary a hitch. Two main takeaways from this experience:

  1. Since I did manage to open the container, I must not be a bear.
  2. If I see a bear with reading glasses on the trail, I must hide the Bearvault directions. The state of my snacking depends in it.