Sunday 19 June 2011

If These Boots Could Talk

Friends and foes: some of my bushwalking boots from the last decade and more 

“Yes sir, surprisingly, they’re made in Ireland. But these boots are very well respected among the mountaineering fraternity.” 

The salesman took a micro-breath, stepped closer, dropped his voice conspiratorially. The Irish do wonders with leather sir. Think of their horses. And the clincher is, they’re 60% off, today only, and we have them in your size!”

The idea of buying mountaineering boots for bushwalking was odd enough, but Irish ones?! I’d been to Ireland; I knew they had few “real” mountains, and that they were not exactly famous for breeding mountaineers. And I could hear my walking mates’ jibes already. (“An Irish mountaineer walks into a bar. ‘Now who left dat t’ing lyin’ around?!’”)

Despite all, I succumbed to the salesman’s blarney, walking away with a pair of James Boylan mountaineering boots. And truth to tell, they ended up being some of the best I’ve ever entombed my feet in.

Because let’s face it, you’re likely to have a love-hate relationship with your boots. No matter how good they are, there will be times when putting them back on will feel like strapping on an instrument of torture. Your feet are sure to rebel against what your boots put them through on a hard bushwalk. That rebellion can take the form of blisters, pressure sores, bruised toes, cracked skin, blackened toe-nails and all manner of other aches and pains. And then there’s their olfactory rebellion, which can be serious enough to have you casting the offending footwear into the night.

Yet what a different story it is in those days leading up to a bushwalk. How loving we are to those boots then:  carefully bathing any mud or marks from their skin; warming them gently; massaging them deeply with magical unctions. And why? A vain effort to make them see things our way, to consider remaining pliable perhaps, dry even. How touchingly optimistic we are in those pre-walk days!

 A boot-eating quagmire on Tasmania's Arthur Plains
And when the worst happens? Like the proverbial dog returning to his recycled dinner, we find ourselves mooching about in outdoor stores (or their on-line equivalents) looking for a solution. Deliberately putting ourselves in harms way, we ask the salesman (or the forum members or on-line reviewers) what they think about Gore-tex or eVent or full-grain leather or composites or Vibram or light-weight or trail-runners or … The list is long indeed.

If we run true to form, we sooner or later find ourselves in possession of footwear that promises to give us Mercury’s wing-ed feet. Too often our purchase fails to make us fly, and only our wallets are lighter. Because in the end, a hard bushwalk will be tough on our feet, whether they’re in boots, boat-shoes or bare.

After all, what is it we’re wanting out of a walk? To get out of it unscathed? Oh, I hope not! The whole point, to me at least, is to come out of it properly scathed: to be wounded in that most difficult, wonderful, painful, life-affirming way that only effort and anguish can bring about. That’s the kind of hurt that actually ends up healing.

I’ll be trying to remember that next time I strap on my boots … while I’m trying to forget their price!

The latest blarney purchase: Italian full-grain, handcrafted, Gore-tex, 3D sole, etc etc! 

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Table Service

There are mountains, and then there are mountains. Even if we don’t know much about them, we know what we like.

Undeniably beautiful: Tasmania's Cradle Mountain, reflected in Dove Lake  
Cradle Mountain, for instance, seems to have a universal appeal. Stand at Dove Lake on the right kind of day, with the shapely mountain reflected in the lake’s tranquil, tannin-tinged waters, and you’ll be hard to please if you aren’t enraptured.

Table Mountain is not that sort of mountain. For me, for the 30 plus years I’ve been driving Tasmania’s Midland Highway, Table Mountain has been one of those mildly interesting landforms I’ve acknowledged as I’ve driven past.

It’s a flat-topped, doleritic eminence that draws the eye only because of its remarkable flatness – hardly a characteristic we’d attribute to beautiful mountains. And yet the explorer in me has always pondered what it would be like up there; how you would get there; what you’d see from its flat roof.

Such seeds usually germinate. So, when a cold winter’s night broke into the sort of clear morning that sang “climb a mountain today!”, I decided Table Mountain’s turn had come. We knew little about the access, just a road number and a property name about 20 minutes north of Bothwell. But both were obvious, as was the steep-sided, flat-topped slab of Table Mountain rising out of the forests to our east.

Tasmania's humble Table Mountain, as seen from the Bothwell-Interlaken Rd 

The farmer whose property we would have to traverse was a man of few words. Cautious, and possibly suspicious of our intentions, he finally thawed enough to show us the recommended farm track. But he still made us walk all the way rather than take the car any closer through his property.

Snow had fallen earlier in the week, and patches persisted in the shade beside the farm track. We quickly pulled the mountain closer, surprised that legs and lungs working hard can do this! Once, when studying ancient Hebrew as part of a theology degree, my professor used a phrase that has stuck with me. When he thought me impatient he would say “Al regel ahat”. It translates literally as “on one foot”, and he meant that I wanted to learn it all in one quick hit.

The implication was that I needed to take it one step at a time. The words have now become something of a mantra for me while bushwalking. No matter whether you’re fast or slow, a streaker or a snail, you can only get there by putting one foot in front of the other. Al regel ahat.

Of course a track helps too, and for this walk there wasn’t one, just a maze of forestry and fire trails, and a very obvious cliff-line in front of us. Fortunately the line-of-least-resistance route to the top was also obvious. With a little slipping and sliding, and huffing and puffing, we soon stood on the 1095m table-top.

The mountain's flat top probably derives from a combination of geology and geomorphology. Geologically it looks like the top of a broad sill created when rising molten dolerite hit resistant layers and spread out beneath. Its geomorphological history would have involved a stripping away of that overburden, and a bull-dozing flat by ice sheets over a few ice ages.

I suppose I'd imagined that, as a result of these forces, the top would be rocky and flat; perhaps not billiard table flat, but at least clear and open. Instead we found a stunted, snowy forest, on gently undulating ground, with only the cliff edges clear.

But the views were every bit as good as I imagined. North-west were Great Lake, with the distant Walls of Jerusalem behind. West we could see many of the peaks of the Cradle Mt-Lake St Clair National Park; south the Wellington Range, and between them the snow-clad peaks of Mt Field National Park.

Dolerite table service, on Table Mountain, Tasmania 

We found ourselves a perfect table-like rock for lunch. In warm sun, with clear skies and hardly a breath of wind, only the snow on the peaks around us hinted at winter. That and the lengthening shadows which, even by 2pm, reminded us to be off the mountain and back to the car by 4pm. Without a tent and warm overnight gear, you would not want to be benighted out here.

Still the sun was so beguiling that we dallied on the return walk, finding a sun-filled meadow among tall but sparse trees. While we soaked up some gentle vitamin D, a South American mountain was helping to add a spectacular end to the day. Volcanic ash in the stratosphere was not only delaying 20 000 Aussie plane travellers, it was catching the sun's final rays and reflecting them back at the earth. Little compensation to air travellers, but unforgettable to those on foot.

A perfect ending to a wonderful day out walking 

Monday 6 June 2011

Life in the Fridge*

A harbor seal on ice, South Sawyer Glacier, Alaska  

They say firewood warms you three times: collecting it, splitting it and burning it. During the latest blast of wintery weather, while my thrice-warmed body relaxed by the fire, my curious mind was free to wander in comfort. It got to thinking about how other mammals deal with the cold.

A few years back we had the privilege of spending time in Alaska. Before you get mental images of snow and ice and polar bears, I should quickly add that we were there in summer, and in the relatively mild south-east. Except for the highest parts, the area is dominated by coniferous forest and intricate and rich waterways.

But it can still get cold, and the incredibly diverse wildlife of both sea and land has had to adapt to that. We were fortunate enough to see some of the amazing variety of mammals that live in and around Alaska’s Inside Passage.

Largest of all were the whales, mainly humpback, but also grays. The area is a hot-spot for humpbacks, providing both large amounts of food (krill) and vast sheltered waterways. Their protection against the cold water is two-pronged: fuel and insulation. Digesting food gives the body energy, and thus warmth. But the right kind and quantity of food also builds up a fatty layer (blubber) just beneath the skin. It can be up to 15cm thick, and keeps the whale’s body warm even in freezing cold water.

A mother humpback whale and calf in the Inside Passage, Alaska 

Steller sea lions and harbor seals use a similar tactic, building up layers of blubber that can account for up to 30% of their weight during winter. Both have extremely fat-rich milk, enabling their pups to quickly put on weight, including the all-important insulating layer of blubber. Although both of these pinnipeds have some hair, the hair has absolutely no insulating value.

Steller sea lions hauled out on a rock in Sitka Sound, Alaska 
That contrasts starkly with the defence against cold used by sea otters. We came across a raft of these charming aquatic mammals in Sitka Sound. They were swimming and resting in the kelp-covered shallows, occasionally surfacing with shell-fish, which they ate using their tummies as a table. We approached slowly, engine off, so as not to scare the skittish mammals. They’ve been hunted close to extinction, so their wariness is justified.

Sea otters dining in the shallows, Sitka Sound, Alaska 
Apart from fuelling themselves via a rich shell-fish diet, sea otters have the densest fur of any mammal. Hair density can reach an amazing 165,000 hairs per square cm, equating to hundreds of millions of hair fibres per otter. Only God is supposed to know how many hairs humans have on their head (see Luke 12:7), but scientists estimate a mere 150 000 in total. And that's if we've kept them all! 

Only one other mammal comes close to this hirsute sea otter, and that’s Australia’s unique monotreme, the platypus. Body fat becomes far less important to these creatures, as their dense fur traps air and excludes water, both of which keep the body warmer. 

On land we came across a mammal which uses yet another tactic to cope with life in the fridge. Bears, both Alaskan brown (or grizzly), and the black variety, live in south-east Alaska. We got uncomfortably close to the obligatory three bears, although in our case it was a momma bear and two baby bears (papa bear, thankfully, didn't show). Although the state of their fur and the amount of fat they carry are still important, bears also beat off the cold by hibernating through the winter months.

Interestingly, Australia's other monotreme, the echidna, also hibernates. In fact echidnas lower their temperature far further, and hibernate more deeply, than do bears.

Meanwhile there's snow on Kunanyi/Mt Wellington, and I’m carefully considering my cold-beating options. I'm not keen to add blubber, and my hair density only looks like heading south. While hibernation also has its attractions, I think I’ll settle for food (in moderation) and fire to protect me from the cold. That and the feathers that fill my doona and down jacket. I bless the geese that kindly loaned me those!

When Alaska was purchased from the Russians in 1867 for $7.2million (about 2c an acre), it was derided by the press and many politicians as a waste of money for a useless “ice-box”.