Winging it in the Wilderness

You guys should continue on after Holly Lake and do the Paintbrush/Cascade Canyon Loop, suggested Ranger Josie. We had stuck around to chat with her after her inspiring evening amphitheater talk at Colter Bay Campground during our vacation in Grand Teton National Park in August. When we mentioned our hiking plans for the next day, she explained that instead of stopping at the lake, we could could keep going and complete a 20-mile loop. She had done it earlier in the summer and said it was breathtaking.

20 miles? The longest hike I had ever done in one day was around 13 miles. I was so tired at the end of it I could barely walk. No way was I going to do 20 miles. Anyway, it had been already been an action-packed vacation. Over the previous week we had hiked numerous trails, climbed Middle Teton, bouldered on huge rocks left behind on an old glacial moraine, and paddled canoes on Jackson Lake. I was hoping for a more relaxing plan for our final day. My hope was to sleep in, hike at a leisurely pace to Holly Lake and then sketch and relax. Maybe we could do the 20-mile loop another year as part of a multi-day backpack–with sleeping in between the hiking segments.

As planned, we slept late next morning and didn’t hit the trail until 9:30 a.m. We hiked the seven miles to the lake at a slow pace, stopping along the way to take photos and eat snacks. We reached our destination at 2 p.m. Much to our dismay, the wind was howling and it was too chilly to hang out for hours. I did a quick sketch and we filtered some water for the return trip.

holly-lake-2
Doug takes in the views at Holly Lake.

As we started to hike back, we passed a sign for Paintbrush Divide–the high point of the canyon was only two more miles above the lake. Hmm, maybe it would be fun to continue up the trail, I thought. Not all the way to the pass, of course, but just a little higher to get some views.

Okay, just a little farther. I ascend he trail above Holly Lake.
Okay, just a little farther. I ascend he trail above Holly Lake.

We climbed another mile up the canyon and the vistas seemed to get better with each step we took. Still, it was getting to be late afternoon and we figured it was probably prudent to turn around. Already, it would be a 16-mile round trip. As we were taking a photo at our intended high-point, a hiker came down the trail. She recommended we keep going until we could at least see the path up the divide. We figured it couldn’t hurt to at least take a look at the remainder of the route.

Just after a hiker took this photo of our intended high point for the day, she talked us into going a little farther.
Just after a German hiker took this photo of our intended high point for the day, she talked us into going a little farther.

Once we saw the divide before us, the choice was clear. It wasn’t much farther, so we would keep going and turn around once we got to the top. As we made our way up the rocky trail, smoke from a large fire in the northern end of Grand Teton National Park got thicker and obscured the sun. It gave the landscape an eerie, surreal hue that made the hike feel even more adventurous.

up-paintbrush-divide-for-web
High winds caused the Berry Fire in the northern part of the park to flare up during the day. The smoke from the distant fire obscured our views, but created an intriguing atmosphere.

Once we crested the divide, we were blasted by the same strong winds that were fueling the distant fire. We hiked along the pass, taking in the views and making sure not to get too close to the edge for fear of getting blown over it.  Just as we were about to head back down, two hikers serendipitously approached us. We found out that they were doing the 20-mile loop, only they were traveling in the opposite direction. They had already gone eleven miles and had nine to go.

Doug and I had a realization, we had already done almost half of the 20-mile loop. Why not keep going?

paintbrush-divide-for-the-web
We are at the top of Paintbrush Divide at 4 p.m., trying to hide from the gale. Hmmm… can we finish 11 more miles before dark? We think so! If not, we have headlamps in our packs.

We only had four hours of daylight to cover eleven miles, so we upped the pace. When the terrain allowed, we speed-walked and even jogged a bit. Within an hour, we were at Lake Solitude and an hour after that we were descending Cascade Canyon and looking at up at the spectacular Grand Teton–a peak we climbed in 1992 when we were youngsters in college.

casdcade-canyon
Is this place even real? It is so beautiful!

By 8 p.m. we were contouring around the shore of Jenny Lake and soon we were back to the car. We had made it before dark!

 

end-of-the-hike-for-the-web
I am tired but excited that I will make it back to camp before the shower house closes for the evening!

 

Driving back to the campground, it was hard to comprehend that we had just done a 2o-mile hike. I wasn’t even that sore! I was tremendously happy that we had allowed ourselves the freedom to embark on such a spontaneous adventure. Had we turned around, we would have missed out on one of the most stunning hikes I have ever witnessed.

Spontaneous adventures were something that became elusive for me in later life. In 2006,  I was not only diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, I also received the news that I had celiac disease. Due to ulcerative colitis, whenever I traveled, I had to know where restrooms were. With celiac disease, I had to make sure I always packed back-up food in case I couldn’t find gluten-free dining options.

Since my ostomy surgery in 2010, I no longer have to worry about restroom locations for urgency, but I do have to make sure to always have back-up supplies with me. I also have to change my appliance every 3-4 days or my skin isn’t happy. This can impact spontaneity as well. It can be problematic to make a last-minute decision to get up early to climb a peak on a morning when I am scheduled for an appliance change.

With all these things to consider, how do I make sure that I can still have impromptu trips? Simple–I prepare for spontaneity.

This may sound contradictory. After all, spontaneity is the opposite of pre-planning. However, by making sure I am prepared with a few basic supplies, I can be ready for any spur-of-the-moment adventures in the outdoors.

Here are three things I bring with me to make sure I am ready to wing it in the wilderness.

Closed-end ostomy pouches
When on outdoor trips, I most often use drainable pouches and empty them into a “cathole” I dig in the ground. However, I am a hardcore LNT enthusiast, and I strive to follow best practices when disposing of my waste in the backcountry. That means digging holes six inches deep in organically rich soil, 200 feet from water sources, campsites and trails. Unfortunately, good places to bury waste are not always easy to find. Multiply that difficulty by the fact that I have to locate as many as five to eight such places a day with my emptying frequency! If my plans change and I find myself traveling over rocky terrain where digging holes is not possible, or if I need to cover a lot of ground in a hurry (like on our loop hike), swapping out closed-end pouches and packing out the full ones becomes my preferred method for dealing with waste. On every hike I go on, I make sure to bring several closed-end pouches and small plastic bags to pack them out in. Ostosolution Ostomy Pouch Disposal Seals are also handy to snap over the full pouch openings and hold the odor in.

lake-solitude-for-the-web
Swapping out a pouch along the trail above Lake Solitude only took a couple of minutes. Locating a good place to dig a hole and then emptying would have taken at least 15 minutes. This was my third swap on the hike, so it’s easy to see how that time could add up.

Salty food
You won’t catch me with a few energy and protein bars as my only food source in my pack. I bring a stuff sack full of a wide variety of foods including dried fruit, chocolate, cheese and crackers, bars, peanut butter, cookies, and–most importantly–salty snacks. Since getting an ostomy, I seem to be prone to salt depletion on the trail. It usually starts with nausea and dizziness and then progresses to a gnarly headache with fatigue. All I have to do to make it go away is eat something salty. My doctor told me to always hike with plenty of sodium-rich foods so I make it a habit to bring pretzels, jerky, salted nuts and chips such as Fritos. Also, I always bring a little more food than I need. Yes it adds weight to my pack, but it comes in handy if I change my hiking plans mid-way (or if I were to get injured or lost).

Water filter
As an ostomate, I am also prone to dehydration. On most shorter day hikes, I carry a 3-liter CamelBak. However, this would not be adequate on a bigger hike or if I ended up staying out longer than expected. A great way to remain adaptable to changing water needs is to carry a tool to treat water. I have used a variety of methods including iodine tablets, Aquamira and a SteriPEN. However, my favorite water treatment method is using a water filter. These come in a variety of designs, but my number one choice is the Katadyn Gravity Camp 6L Water Filter. You simply place it in a location that is higher than your water bottle or bladder, and let gravity force water through the filter. No pumping is involved and it filters a liter of water in roughly a minute.

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With darkness fast approaching and five more miles to go, we were grateful to have the ability to filter water quickly. I drank seven liters on the hike.

When we were trying to choose whether or not to complete the 20-mile Paintbrush/Cascade Canyon loop hike, we thought about the late hour, our stamina, and encountering mountain lions or bears in the darkness. However, my ostomy never entered the equation as a factor in our decision. I knew that by preparing for spontaneity, I was all set for the unplanned adventure!

 

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My favorite products for dealing with ostomy waste in the backcountry

Just one more cast, I thought, as I tossed my line in the still waters of Middle Willow Lake in the Gore Range of Colorado. It was a phrase I had been repeating to myself all morning, and by that time I had completed dozens of “final” casts– almost every one hooking a hungry brookie. I nervously looked at the blackening clouds coming over the ridge but even the threat of a downpour couldn’t stop me from flinging my line in the lake again. Sure enough– a trout grabbed the elk-hair caddis fly. I reeled the fish in, released the hook from its mouth and watched it swim away.

Fly fishing before the storm came in.
Fly fishing before the storm came in.

Suddenly, a swift downdraft disrupted the glassy surface of the the lake and a crack of thunder smashed the silence of the mountain basin. That really would have to be my last cast of the day.

Doug motioned to me from down the lake shore that he too was ready to call it quits. Hail let loose from the sky and pelted my forehead as I hefted my pack onto my back and fastened the hip belt. That is when I noticed the bulging ostomy pouch on my belly and remembered that I had not emptied it since before breakfast; it was now late afternoon. Oh well. It would have to wait. Doug and I threw on our raincoats and made our way through the forest and back to camp.

When the rain didn’t let up for hours, I cursed not emptying my pouch earlier when the weather was fair. I could have taken my sweet time digging a perfect hole in the perfect location while blanketed in warm sunlight. Instead, I was cold, damp and stuck under our cooking tarp watching the torrential rain form small lakes around our backcounty site. Teeth already chattering from the damp chill, there was no way I was going to take a ten-minute hike into the forest surrounding camp to empty my pouch. Fortunately there was another option: in the tent I had a supply of closed-end pouches on hand. Within a few minutes I had a fresh one popped on and the used one bagged up.

Doug waits out the rain under our cooking tarp.
Doug waits out the rain under our cooking tarp.
warming-up
It is very important to color-coordinate your mug and jacket while in the backcountry.

Our backpack in the Gore Range has been just one of many outdoor adventures we have embarked on this summer (which is one of the reasons I have been so absent on this blog!) We also went on two more backpacking trips, including a short trip in the Mt. Massive Wilderness and a rugged nine-day adventure in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness– all in our home state of Colorado. Early June also included a climb of the First Flatiron in Boulder, CO. Each trip was unique, and I loved having a variety of waste management techniques to pull from. In this post I will highlight my favorite products and techniques for dealing with output during those situations when emptying would be inconvenient or impossible. Some of these methods I have written about before and are tried and true for me. Others are new things I have just recently discovered.

Our first backpacking trip of the summer was a three-day adventure in the Mt. Massive Wilderness in Colorado.
Let’s go that way! The summer of 2015 was filled with three amazing backpacking/ fly fishing trips in our home state of Colorado. Our first one was a was a three-day adventure in the Mt. Massive Wilderness.
Trip number two consisted of a four-day hike into the Willow Lakes area of the Gore Range.
Trip number two consisted of a four-day journey in the Willow Lakes area of the Gore Range.
We ended the season with a 9-day off-trail backpacking and fly fishing adventure in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness in Colorado.
We ended the season with a nine-day mostly off-trail backpacking trip in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness.

Closed-end pouches
So often, closed-end pouches are labeled as being designed for colostomies. True, ileostomates tend to have more profuse output which makes swapping out multiple pouches everyday an expensive endeavor.  However, for certain short-term situations, closed-end pouches can be an incredibly useful tool for all people with ostomies.

There is no place to drain a pouch on long rock climbs such as the First Flatiron, which Doug and I made an ascent of in June.
There is no place to drain a pouch on long rock climbs such as the First Flatiron in Boulder, CO, which Doug and I made an ascent of in June.
Swapping out a closed-end pouch on a climb up the FIrst Flatiron this summer was easy.
Fortunately, swapping out a closed-end pouch on a climb is easy– even while tied in with my harness buckled.

I use them on rock climbs, trips near water, snow adventures and any other times when the environment does not allow for digging holes to bury wast. They are easy and mess-free to swap and pack out.  Moreover, lately I have discovered their handiness for nighttime use on backpacking trips.

Though I dig holes and empty 90% of the time while backpacking, overnight emptying has always been a challenge for me. For some reason my digestive system changes when I am doing strenuous activity all-day and I have to empty a lot more at night than I do at home.

In order to minimize my impact on future backpackers, I like to walk a fairly long distance from camp to empty, and I only dig holes in areas where no one would likely set up a campsite in the future. The problem is, places like that are hard to find in pitch blackness. I used to pre-dig a few holes during the day and then make mental notes to find them in the dark, but it was still a challenge to hike to these locations in the middle of the night when I was sleepy. If it was raining, it was even worse. I soon discovered it was a lot safer to stay close to camp and swap out closed-end pouches in the middle of the night. During the day, I would go back to using a drainable pouch.

Hiking into the darkness to find a place to empty my pouch is not my favorite thing to do. I have since started swapping out closed-end pouches at night on wilderness trips so that I don't have to do this.
Hiking into the darkness to find a location to empty my pouch is not my favorite thing to do. I have since started swapping out closed-end pouches at night on wilderness trips so that I don’t have to do this.
It feels great to relax in my sleeping bag knowing I am not going to have to hike off into the dark woods to empty.
It feels great to relax in my sleeping bag knowing I am not going to have to hike off into the dark woods to empty.

Doggie Poo Bags
Managing an ostomy in the wilderness requires packing out used supplies. One of my favorite items to secure used pouches and wafers are simple opaque black doggie-poo bags. They are cheap, non-bulky, and lightweight. Moreover, Ziplock bags can easily un-zip or pop open when jostled. However, doggie poo bags can be tied tightly with an overhand knot. Even when packing out pouches with the the most watery output, I have never had one leak.

LOKSAK OPSAK Odor-proof Barrier Bags
Though doggie-poo or other plastic bags may work well for holding used pouches, they don’t do a good job of containing odors.  Even when I double-bag them in a regular Zip-lock bag, the smell still comes through. One great product for solving this dilemma is OPSAK odor proof barrier bags. They come in two different sizes and are great for holding in odors when you need to pack out full ostomy pouches. They are pricey, so I place all my sealed doggy-poo bags into one OPSAK, empty it into the trash at the trailhead, and then save it for another trip.

My pouch pack-out trifecta: the full pouch goes into a doggy-poo bag, that goes into a Ziplock, a few of those go into a Ziplock and than all of it gets placed into a re-usable OPSAK Odor-proof Bag.
My pouch pack-out trifecta: the full pouch goes into a doggy-poo bag, a few of those go into a Ziplock to contain odors a little bit more, and then those get placed into a re-usable OPSAK Odor-proof Bag.
OPSAK bags come in a large size too for a more extended expedition.
OPSAK bags come in a large size too for a more extended expedition.

OstoSolutions Ostomy Pouch Disposal Seals
Unfortunately, closed-end pouches that are full of ostomy output are incredibly heavy and take up space in one’s pack. I once weighed my full nighttime pouches on a two-night backpack trip and they collectively weighed three pounds. Multiply that for longer trips and the extra weight becomes quite burdensome.

I was faced with such a dilemma on a nine-day backpacking trip in the Sangre De Cristo range of Colorado in August.  This trip was a particularly strenuous one with difficult off-trail travel over incredibly steep mountain passes. Our packs were heavy due to the amount of food we had to carry and the last thing I wanted to do was add more weight to my pack in the form of closed-end pouches filled with poop. At first I had planned to just go out into the night to empty to save from carrying the extra weight, but every evening at bed time the storms and torrential rains seemed to roll in.

I scramble up a steep gully with a heavy pack on a 9-day off-trail backpacking trip in the Sangre de Cristo Range, Colorado.
I scramble up a steep gully carrying a heavy pack on a nine-day off-trail backpacking trip in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, Colorado.
I didn't need the added weight of full used ostomy pouches in my backpack.
Food and supplies for such a long trip were heavy, and I didn’t need the additional weight of full used ostomy pouches in my backpack.

Fortunately, I found a great way to solve this problem by using some OstoSolutions Ostomy Pouch Disposal Seals that I had brought along. In the tent, I would swap out a closed-end pouch as I always had. However, instead of just tossing the full one into a baggie and tying it shut, I would cap it with an OstoSolutions Seal. In the morning, I would take a long hike from camp and dig a cathole in perfect Leave No Trace style. I would then remove the OstoSolutions Seal from the full pouch and dump the contents in the hole. Finally, I would snap the OstoSolutions Seal back on the now-empty pouch and bag it up to be packed out. The weight savings in packing out used (but no longer full) pouches was huge! The OstoSolutions Seals themselves are very light. I found that packing one for each night (plus a few more for those rare nights when I might have to empty twice) was easily doable. The seals would also be handy in alpine areas where digging holes to empty can cause damage to the delicate environment. A full pouch, capped with an OstoSolutions Seal, could be packed out until one got below treeline. There the seal could be snapped off, and the contents of the pouch buried in a much less fragile place.

I can snap an OstoSolution Seal on my pouch at night and then pop it off later to empty the contents into a cathole (a six-inch deep hole dug in the ground.)
I can snap an OstoSolutions Seal on my full pouch at night and then pop it off later to empty the contents into a cathole (a six-inch deep hole dug in the ground.)
Doug and I descended the steep gully below the notch in this photo on day seven of the trip. It was essential to keep our packs as light as possible in such terrain.
Doug and I descended the steep gully below the notch in this photo on day seven of the Sangre de Cristo trip. Keeping our packs as light as possible was essential in such rugged terrain.

Don’t let a fear of being away from a bathroom prevent you from heading into the wilds. With these four supplies (closed-end pouches, doggie poo bags, OPSAK bags, OstoSolutions Seals), you will be ready for storms, darkness, snow, rock, water, a heavy pack or any other challenges that might present themselves in the backcountry. If these supplies end up not working for you, get creative. An ostomy can be managed in even the craziest situations– it is just a matter of experimenting and finding the right tools for the job.

Yep
Stormy weather seemed to follow us on all of our trips this summer! Doug casts a few more times before we hastily return to camp.
Not another storm! Dealing with my ostomy in foul weather was an everyday occurrence on most of my trips this summer.
Yikes! Yet another storm! Dealing with my ostomy in foul weather was an everyday occurrence.
However, the clouds did part enough that I got some glorious backcountry lake swimming in.
However, the clouds did part occasionally, and I was able to get some glorious backcountry swims in. I do not have to make any special modifications to my ostomy system when swimming– it adheres just fine as is.

 

These goats have nothing to do with ostomies, but I did see them on one of our trips and they are cute.
These goats have nothing to do with ostomies, but I did see them on one of our trips and they were cute.

 

Fibroid fun!

Yesterday I had a serious case of deja vu while driving in for a surgery. I vividly remembered a morning four and a half years ago when my hubby and I pulled up to the hospital for my ostomy operation. I had been in a tenuous remission after a severe flare had hospitalized me for a couple of weeks. I was so relieved that nothing had gone wrong and that I was actually going to have the surgery while in a fairly healthy state to rid myself of an organ that had been ruining my life. I was so eager that I wanted to run into the hospital and jump on the operating table.

This time I was equally excited. Though I wasn’t anticipating giving an organ the boot, I was excited to rid myself of some pesky uterine fibroids that had been making my life very miserable. Just like with my ostomy operation, I was so happy when we pulled into the hospital and realized that nothing was going to get in the way of my surgery. Life happenings and a really busy work schedule over the past few months had made scheduling the surgery difficult. To top it off, two weeks ago I came down with a horrible respiratory bug and fever that also resulted in developing viral-induced asthma. There was a chance I was going to have to cancel, but I did everything I could to give my body a boost. I used sinus rinses and warm compresses, took Musinex and my asthma medications religiously. Most importantly, I rested and slept a ton. Three days before my surgery, my illness cleared up and I got the go-ahead from my doctor to proceed. Whew!

I am happy to be in pre-op and ready to rid myself of the fibroid mini-beasts likely lurking in my uterus.
I am happy to be in pre-op and ready to rid myself of the fibroid mini-beasts likely lurking in my uterus.

So what led up to such eagerness over this surgery? Last summer my periods started changing. They were becoming subtly more painful with light bleeding mid-cycle. By December, both these issues worsened exponentially. I had never experienced many menstrual cramps in the past, so I wasn’t exactly sure what “normal” ones were supposed to feel like. However, my gut feeling told me that the level of pain I was experiencing was unusual and that the heavy bleeding certainly warranted some investigating.

I saw my doctor in the beginning of the year and it was determined that fibroids were likely the cause of my issues. I knew I had some. One–a subserosal type that grows on the outside of the uterus– was seen during my ostomy surgery. That one and then another had showed up on a pelvic MRI that I had to investigate hip pain a couple of years ago. A follow-up ultrasound showed that the second fibroid was probably an intramural type which grows within the uterine wall. Back then, I didn’t worry about these as they weren’t causing any symptoms.

Now that I was experiencing worsening problems, I was scheduled for another ultrasound. This test showed that my older fibroids had probably been joined by a new buddy and that it was likely a submucosal type. These rarer fibroids are found on the lining of the uterus and can cause intense pain and bleeding. Yay! How lucky my uterus was to possibly have three types of fibroids. My body always likes to go big!

Unfortunately, I am not a good candidate for a full on hysterectomy due to my ostomy, possible adhesions and the complications that could be involved. That type of surgery would only be done on me as a last resort. Fortunately, there was an option to at least investigate  my uterine lining and–depending on what was found–try to remove and submucosal fibroids that were most likely causing the bulk of my issues. This procedure, called a hysteroscopic myomectomy, would be a minimally invasive and done under general anesthesia. A camera is inserted through the cervix and any offending fibroids or polyps in the uterine lining are removed.  If all went well, I would only have to miss a couple of days of work while healing. I decided to have the procedure done.

Of course I was nervous about some aspects of the surgery. One unlikely but possible complication was perforation of the uterine wall. If that happened and it was bad enough, there was a possibility of needing an emergency hysterectomy through my mid-line incision. I wondered what that would that mean for my ostomy. I have a wonderfully skilled, thorough and caring gynecologist that I definitely wanted to do the procedure. However, he didn’t do these surgeries at the same hospital that my colorectal surgeon works out of. I was told that if something went wrong and I needed an emergency hysterectomy, a general surgeon who was experienced with ostomies would join in the surgery. The thought of putting complete trust in another surgeon to work around my ostomy was difficult. I had to let go of those fears and hope for the best.

In the end, everything went perfectly with the procedure. Two submucosal fibroids were removed and sent to pathology. My doctor is optimistic that this will fix the problems I have been having. There were no issues related to my ostomy either. I emptied my pouch before heading to pre-op. My surgery took a little less than an hour and I spent a couple of hours in post-op recovery. When I woke up my ostomy pouch was still pretty much empty… probably due to the fact that I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink for eight hours beforehand. Though I knew complications were rare, it was such a relief to wake up in post-op and see my belly intact! My surgery was scheduled for a Friday so that I could recover over the weekend, and so far my post-surgical pain hasn’t been too bad. I may even feel up to going to watch my hubby run the Colfax Marathon in Denver tomorrow!

I am almost ready for discharge, but not before enjoying a hot cup of tea to go along with my dilaudid. I think I went through at least a dozen warm blankets during my time at the hospital. Can I please request this service for home?

As I was experiencing all that deja vu on the way to the hospital yesterday, I was excited for the pain relief this surgery would hopefully bring, but I was definitely scared too. Just like with my elective ostomy surgery, I wondered am I really in bad enough shape to warrant having this done?  With any surgery, even the more minor ones, there is an element of the unknown and also the vulnerability that comes with putting complete trust in a medical team. It can make it hard to take the leap… even when health issues are taking a toll on your quality of life. In this case, I was willing to take a chance to be free from misery. Here’s to hoping the surgery did the trick!

Birds and birthday cake

I turned 43 years old this month and brought in my next year with an overnight camping trip on the wide-open expanses of the Pawnee National Grassland in northeastern Colorado. Unlike last year when I was too stressed out to even celebrate, this birthday was full of calmness (other than the wind which nearly blew us off the prairie.)

All year, I worked hard to re-prioritize various aspects of my life so that I could stop feeling so overwhelmed. This meant saying no to a lot of projects and requests and sometimes disappointing people. It meant spending less time on activities I enjoyed a little in order to make room for things I loved a lot. It meant that, yes, I would miss out on some opportunities and activities, but the reward would be a life that felt closer to my heart and less stressful. Activities like yoga, art and adequate sleep were back in my weekly routine. Pulling into our campsite, I felt light and free knowing that I had rid my life of many of the distractions that had been weighing me down. How wonderful it felt to have no agenda other than to relax and take in this new place with Doug.

We pitched our tent, set up camp and drove the desolate dirt roads that make up the Pawnee’s  21-mile birding tour. With no agenda, we let curiosity be our guide–stopping our car and getting out to explore whenever we saw something that caught our eye. We watched horned larks and McCown’s longspurs devour huge meaty grasshoppers and a saw a green, algae-filled pond that bubbled with squirming salamander tadpoles in its soon-to-evaporate water. Doug took photos of windmills and the landscape while I stopped to sketch.

Windmill-for-webPawnee-Grasslands-journal-pWhen we returned to the campground, the winds died down and we made madras lentils from scratch on the camp stove, ate birthday cake and watched the abundant bird life singing from the cottonwoods around our site. As the temperatures tanked, we burrowed into our sleeping bags in the tent, but not before gazing into the vast night sky. With little light pollution, the stars were so bright that it was hard to pick out some of the usually prominent constellations.

Cooking-web-version
I crush some garlic for a tasty meal of homemade madras lentils.
Binoculars-and-Birthday-cak
I watch the bird life while eating birthday cake at the campfire.

The blazing morning sun belied how cold it was when we woke up the next morning, but soon hot drinks were on the stove and we were ready to start the day. After packing up camp, we drove to the popular Pawnee Buttes hiking trail. On the way there, we stopped to scan a prairie dog town along the road for burrowing owls. Much to our amazement, we spotted one in less than a minute! I couldn’t believe how lucky we were to see one of these birds. It was a first sighting for us and a big birthday treat for sure!

Buttes-jumping-for-web
Hooray! Let’s celebrate Heidi’s birthday!!!

Though I will always be a mountain girl, it was wonderful to be visiting the plains for a change. When I was a child, I was captivated with Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House on the Prairie books. My family went on many a road to trip to visit the places she lived. It had been a long time since I had been back to exploring a prairie landscape and the wide-open spaces surrounding the Pawnee Buttes Trail were awe-inspiring.

Buttes-hiking
Little hiker on the prairie.

When we reached the trail’s terminus, Doug spotted a horned lizard at the side of the path. I took out my sketchbook and sat down to record the shape of its head, curves of its tail and spiny body.  Had the creature not run off after ten minutes, I could have drawn it for hours. Here I was taking this little moment to sketch this little lizard, yet the peace I felt was as boundless as the prairie surrounding me. I could not think of one thing that would have made my birthday more special. I was in heaven.

Prairie-for-web
Enjoying the moment as I sketch a tiny lizard in an immense landscape.

It was time to head back to the city. We bounced down the washboard dirt roads and then finally made it to the smooth pavement of bigger highways. Soon we saw the familiar cityscape of Denver. It was hard to believe we had only traveled 100 miles to get home–the grassland was a different world.

In the days of bucket-lists full of exotic trips, it is easy to think you aren’t living life to the fullest if you aren’t voyaging to far-off locales. It’s not that one shouldn’t dream large, but family needs, lack of money, medical issues– including surgery recovery– and other things can make that safari to Africa or a climb of a Mexican volcano hard to manage.

Instead of feeling bad about what you are unable to do at a certain time, make it a priority to get out on some local excursions. Who’s to say that living fully has to happen in distant lands? I found a treasured moment hiding in six square inches of grass on a vast prairie only two hours from my home. I wonder what other incredible things are to be found right outside my front door?

Lizard-for-web
“Find pleasure in the simple things,” says the wise lizard.

 

Marshmallows and paper towel hats: tips for anytime appliance changes

The main room of our condo during a recent vacation with Doug’s parents looked a bit like an outdoor gear store. Snowboards and skis of all sorts lined the wall and a plethora of boots sat in front of the fireplace. Closets, dressers and duffel bags overflowed with Capilene, fleece and Gore-tex clothing. During a week in the mountains near Winter Park, Colorado, we took part in two days of biathlon racing, and one day each of skate skiing, snowboarding and telemark skiing. I also managed to squeeze in some hiking and sketching in my nature journal in Rocky Mountain National Park. With so many activities on the schedule–some of which required an early start–it was hard to know when to fit in my appliance changes.

Our vacation included to days of biathlon racing.
Our vacation included two days of biathlon racing. I would rather change my appliance after dinner and face the biggest volcano of ostomy output than get up at 4 a.m. to change my appliance before a race.
I also put on my telemark skis after not using them for eight years (and then could barely walk for the next week.) I am trying to relearn this skill so I can use my tele skills to get out to some Colorado ski huts next winter. Stay tuned for a post in 2016 about changing your appliance in a communal ski hut.
I also put on my telemark skis after not using them for eight years (and then could barely walk for the next week.) I am trying to relearn this skill so I can use it to take trips to Colorado ski huts next winter. Stay tuned for a post in 2016 about changing your appliance in a communal ski hut.
Since I could barely walk after my day of telemark skiing, I opted to sit down and sketch in my nature journal for one day of the trip.
Since I could barely walk after my day of tele skiing, I opted to sit down and sketch in my nature journal for one day during the trip.
My snowboard was feeling left out, so I took it out for one day on the slopes. My legs were so tired from days of non-stop winter sports, that I completely lost the ability to make my board turn after a few runs. Note to self-- sliding down the entire front side of the Winter Park Resort on your heel edge is not much fun. Best to take a rest day instead.
My snowboard was feeling left out, so I took it out for one day on the slopes. My legs were so tired from days of non-stop winter sports, that I completely lost the ability to make my board turn after a few runs. Note to self– sliding down the entire front side of the Winter Park Resort on your heel edge is not much fun. Best to take a rest day instead.

Unfortunately, appliance changes aren’t that quick for me. Due to pretty acidic ileostomy output, I have to protect my skin with several layers of products. Stoma powder, skin prep, Duoderm, Eakin Seals and paste–I use them all. My changes usually take at least 30 minutes–sometimes longer.  Even when I use all those products, my output chomps through them like a piranha if I try to go longer than three or four days, and I end up with very raw and painful skin.

The the saying "simple is better" does not apply to my appliance changes. I need a lot of layers of products to protect my skin. Putting on all this stuff takes a lot of time and gives my stoma ample chances to expel output everywhere.
The saying “simple is better” does not apply to my appliance changes. I need a lot of layers of products to protect my skin. Putting on all this stuff takes a lot of time and gives my stoma ample chances to expel output everywhere.

Those with an ileostomy know that it can be pretty hard (if not impossible) to find even a short chunk of time when your stoma isn’t pooping. Usually I try to change my appliance in the morning as that is when my stoma is the most quiet. However, on a busy ski vacation (or any time with a full schedule) that plan doesn’t always work. If I already have to wake up at 5 a.m. to make it to a race on time or catch first tracks in powder, it is hard to get up even earlier to fit in an appliance change. Also, I don’t like worrying about when I am eating and how it will impact my appliance swap. If I want to head out to a restaurant for a post-ski meal later in the evening, I go for it even if I know it will be harder to change in the morning due to the extra output. In some cases I will even switch out appliances in the evening right after a big dinner (gulp!) if that is the best way to fit it into my schedule.

If you are wondering if I have a particularly quiet and cooperative stoma, the answer is no. My stoma is a non-stop workhorse and churns out output 24/7.  Fortunately, I have some tricks that allow me to change at any time of the day even when my stoma is active.

Trick number one: Marshmallows
My stoma nurse first let me in on this little secret. If I eat four to six regular-sized marshmallows about 15 minutes before a change, my stoma will usually stop outputting for about 30 minutes–just enough time to finish getting my appliance on.  I can’t make any promises that it will work for you, but I recommend giving it a try. It is the only time you will get to eat marshmallows for health reasons. I have no idea why the very first individual to discover this trick was dining on marshmallows right before changing their appliance, but I sure am thankful for their sweet tooth!

This photo isn't from our winter vacation but does show my love for marshmallows. They are best over a campfire, but I will happily eat them cold before a 5 a.m. appliance change.
This photo isn’t from our winter vacation but does show my love for marshmallows. They are most delicious when toasted over a campfire, but I will happily eat them cold before an early morning appliance change.

Trick number two: Make a hat for your stoma
When I first got my ostomy, I absolutely dreaded changes. They were tear-filled endeavors wrought with frustration because I couldn’t get my barrier ring and wafer on without my stoma pooping all over the place and ruining the adhesives. I turned to the internet for ideas to solve this problem and discovered a post on a forum that suggested wrapping the tip of my stoma with a strip of paper towel. I gave it a try and couldn’t believe how well it worked! Plus I liked that it made my stoma look like it was wearing a cute hat.

Four years later, and I still use this method during every single change. As my stoma chugs out stool, the little hat fills up. When it has reached maximum carrying capacity, I simply pop it off, toss it in the trash can next to me, and wrap on another. Along with collecting output, the stoma hat frees up my hands to put on powder, barrier film, and all the other products that I use to protect my parastomal skin. It also keeps the base of my stoma dry as it absorbs some of the moisture from the mucous membrane.

This little trick allows me to change whenever I need to as it doesn’t matter if my stoma releases output; the hat is always there to catch it. Occasionally, if my output is profuse and watery during a change, the technique doesn’t work as well. However it is better than nothing, and if my output is watery, sometimes gulping down a few extra marshmallows will temporarily slow down the flow until I can finish the change.

I realize that making a hat for a flush stoma won’t work very well, so this trick works best if your ostomy protrudes from your belly a bit.

The only supplies needed for a stoma hat are one-inch-wide strips of paper towel.
The only supplies needed for a stoma hat are one-inch-wide strips of paper towel.
JWilbur my stoma models a poo-catching paper towel hat. To make one, simply wind the paper towel strip around the top of our stoma and you are set to go.
My stoma, Wilbur, models a stylish poo-catching paper towel hat. To make one, simply wind the paper towel strip around the top of your stoma and you are set to go.
It is easy to slid your wafer right over the stoma when it is wearing a hat. Note that under the wafer, I have already put on my Eakin ring and other materials.
It is easy to slide your wafer right over the stoma when it is wearing a hat. Note that under the wafer, I have already put on my Eakin ring and other materials. If you are using a one-piece appliance, you can still use the hat method. Just pop the hat off right before you put your appliance over your stoma.
All pouched up with no mess at all. For those who are wondering about the tape job, I love Convatec wafers but the tape irritates my skin. I cut it off and add my own strips of Medipore tape.
All pouched up with no mess at all. For those who are wondering about the tape job, I love Convatec Durahesive wafers, but the tape irritates my skin. I cut it off and add my own strips of  3M Medipore tape. This combo adheres well through showering, swimming, and all sorts of sweat-inducing sports.

If you feel your ostomy controls your life and confines you to a certain schedule, keep searching and experimenting to find solutions. I’d never have guessed that something as simple as marshmallows and paper towel “hats” would give me the freedom to live with my ostomy on my terms rather than the whims of my stoma.

A forgotten anniversary

Yesterday morning while perusing Facebook, I saw a post by Brian Greenberg, founder of the Intense Intestines Foundation, regarding the four-year anniversary of his ileostomy surgery on November 9th. I was thinking about how awesome it was that he had accomplished so much since his operation and how happy I was for him. Then I came to a sudden realization: if Brian was celebrating his stoma’s birthday, it meant that I had completely missed the anniversary of my own surgery. You see, when I first discovered Brian’s website a few years ago, I found out that it wasn’t only a love of the outdoors that we had in common: our surgery dates were only one day apart. When I was getting used to my first day as an ostomate, Brian was being wheeled into the operating room. I remember wishing I had known him then. We would have had much to talk about as we prepped for and recovered from surgery.

Now, four years later, I couldn’t believe I had actually forgotten about my stomaversary. It was a date I always ardently celebrated. My surgery had given me my life back and had allowed me to do all the things I loved again. To think I had let my stoma’s birthday pass by without notice made me feel sad and disappointed.

However, I soon started to look at my forgotten stomaversary differently. The reason I had my ostomy surgery was so that I could return to all the things I love and lead a normal life again. I wanted a life in which my family, friends, hobbies and career were at the forefront and health issues faded into the background. Yet in those initial weeks after surgery, my stoma dominated my world. More than anything, I just wanted to get to point where it felt like my ostomy was part of me and not something I had to think of at every moment. On November 8th, I gave my ostomy nary a thought. Perhaps forgetting about my stoma really was the best way to celebrate how far I have come in the past four years.

That said, I don’t intend to let the date slip by again. Wilbur, my stoma buddy, we will definitely celebrate your 5th birthday with a bit more fanfare next year!

Hiking the day after my stomaversary-- completely unaware that I had failed to remember the important date. I guess I was too busy trying to figure out how far I could lean into 60 mile-per-hour winds without falling over.
I went for a hike with family and friends the day after my stomaversary. It would have been the perfect chance to celebrate, but I was completely oblivious to the important date. I guess I was too busy trying to figure out how far I could lean into 60 mile-per-hour winds without falling over to think of such matters.

 

A challenging late-summer biathlon

When I haven’t blogged in a while, it is hard to know where to start. I had a wonderful summer filled with a lot of fun activities and it would be impossible to cover all the happenings in a single post. Last summer I focused on the singular goal of climbing Rainier. This year I spent time doing a lot of different things including camping, rock climbing, hiking peaks, backpacking, bicycling, fly fishing, making art and visiting with family and friends. This was not the summer to get in shape or work on any specific fitness goals; it was a time to let myself bounce from paint brush to climbing hold on a whim and let go of some of the overwhelming feelings that I had been experiencing in the spring due to having too many things on my plate. I even fulfilled my dream of spending an afternoon sketching in my mother-in-law’s beautiful backyard flower garden with a glass of iced tea at my side. While I moved forward in feeling less stressed, my performance in a few sports definitely took a hit. One of those was running.

The results of some much needed rest and relaxation: a sketch sketch in my nature journal.
Nature journaling may not improve physical fitness, but it is definitely good for my mental health!

That was not a good thing with a September biathlon race on the schedule. Last winter, Doug and I started this sport and fell in love with it. Our last race was six months ago. In preparation for the upcoming season, we signed up for our local biathlon club’s late-summer event. This warm-weather race would be done by running or cycling rather than by skiing. I absolutely love biathlon and was excited to get out there with my running shoes and rifle. The course was only 5K, so I wasn’t too worried about my lack of training. Certainly I can run a few miles, I figured. It wasn’t like I had been a couch potato all summer. I had done a little bit of running and had still been active with climbing and hiking.

Unfortunately, I was in for a rude awakening on race day. The event was tougher than I anticipated and I huffed and puffed my way through the course. I couldn’t glide down the hills as I was used to doing on skis so it felt like my legs never got a break. Each lap of the race route ended with a small uphill into the range and I was so out of breath during the shooting bouts that I missed most of my targets. That meant a lot of extra penalty laps. Forget about trying to make a certain time–I decided mid-race that my goal would be to simply run the whole course without walking. I succeeded, but was completely wiped out by the time I reached the finish line.

Even though the race was tough, I still had an absolute blast. It rekindled my desire to train for biathlon. Maybe not at a super intense level (I still want to leave time in my schedule to work on art), but enough that I see some personal improvement.

Running into the range for my first shooting bout.
Running into the range for my first shooting bout.

 

Here I am shooting in prone position. The ability to use one's elbow for support makes the it a little easier to hit the targets when I am breathing hard.
Here I am shooting in prone position. The ability to use both elbows for support makes it a little easier to hit the targets.
I couldn't hit any targets in the standing position. My breathing was making my rifle wobble everywhere.
I couldn’t hit any targets in the standing position. My labored breathing was making my rifle wobble slightly, making a huge difference at a distance of 50 meters.
With no targets hit, it is off to the penalty lap once I put my rifle on the rack.
With no targets hit, it is off to the penalty loop for five laps once I put my rifle on the rack. Knowing my fate, I am not sure why I am smiling. Could it be because biathlon is so darn fun?

Another thing that made race day challenging is that I was experiencing watery and profuse ostomy output. I have no idea why—it just happens to me on random occasions. The hard part is that there is no restroom near the biathlon range and the hectic race-day schedule makes it tough to hike back to the lodge to use the facilities. When I am not racing, I am usually helping with scoring or other tasks. My ostomy hadn’t been a problem at other races because I can usually make it six hours between empties. With the higher output, I knew I would have to somehow deal with it out at the range. I thought about taking Imodium, but sometimes that medication makes me feel nauseated, and I didn’t want to feel sick during the race.

To solve the dilemma, I brought closed-end pouches for my two-piece appliance and OstoSolution Seals. When my pouch filled, I dashed off to a secluded spot in the nearby woods to swap it out. The OstoSolutions Ostomy Pouch Disposal Seals made it easy to pack out the full pouches. During the hour I was actually racing, my output slowed down and I didn’t have to worry about it out on the course.

Though it can be frustrating, I really do appreciate it when my stoma acts up and throws me an unexpected challenge. It teaches me to be resourceful and is a good reminder that even on those less-than-ideal days, I refuse to let my ostomy slow me down.  Now if only that were the case with my lung and leg power!  They are definitely holding me back. In the upcoming months I am going to be busily training for the winter biathlon season so that I won’t get so tired on all those penalty loops.