Monday, October 24, 2016

Fall in a tourist town

I charge up the trail, feeling optimistic.  It is a cloudy, cool Monday, and there aren't a lot of vehicles at the trailhead.  During the summer I avoid this trail.  It's short and starts at a campground; on a weekend day there are hundreds of people here.

Those of us who live here often recreationally complain about tourists: the traffic! clogged trails! the "resort tax"!  It seems ridiculous that you usually can't find a parking spot at Logan Pass in the park after 10 am in the summer, despite acres of asphalt.  At the same time, we know there are perks we enjoy because of them, like an airport with lots of flights, good restaurants, and a great ski area.  Still, the time in between the summer and winter tourist crowds is a welcome break.

I only encounter a few people on the trail, and can move fast.  I arrive at the lake, amazed as always by how different it looks in different seasons.

On the way down, that's when I start seeing them: the tourists! At least thirty of them tromp up the trail.  One guy wears a Russian style fur hat; one girl has elected to hike in Uggs.  Some anxiously inquire how much farther it is to the lake.  I wonder why they are here, in the gloomy, rainy autumn we are having.  I'd like to think they are the adventurous ones, traveling in the off-season, not following the herd.

The winter skiers will be here soon, and the hikers will leave.  Those of us who live in the valley appreciate the lull, but we know why they come here.  All we need to do is look around us.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


Thirteen years is a long time.  In the last 13 years, I moved four times and had four different jobs.  Thirteen years ago I was married and now I'm not.  In the last 13 years I've been to Ecuador, Belize, Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, Nepal, Patagonia, Antarctica, and Iceland.

Today is the 13th anniversary of a helicopter crash.  Not a fatal one, at least not then, although I think that one of the passengers might still be alive today if he hadn't been there, sitting in the front seat.  I don't talk about it a lot, partly because I've known so many people who didn't make it through their own crashes, or who were forever physically and mentally changed afterwards.  "What's the big deal, nobody died," somebody once said to me.  It's hard to explain.  How do you explain the impact of this, when you and the others are up walking around, looking just fine?
But sometimes I do talk about it, because my crews want to know, and there are lessons they can learn from it: the importance of training for disaster, so your actions are second nature when it does happen, and why every person on every flight needs to have a purpose, no joyrides allowed.  When I talk about it, I usually don't know what people are thinking.  Maybe they are thinking what's the big deal, or maybe I'm not sure I want this job now. Sometimes it's hard to tell.

This summer there was a fire close to the crash site; so close that fire camp was only a quarter mile away.  The hotshot crew from my forest was there.  They had heard my story but that wasn't the end of it.

The 20 men and women drove to the crash site.  They lined out in a row as if they were looking for smokes on the fire, and gridded through the meadow.  But instead of embers, they looked for pieces of wreckage.  They found over a hundred, tiny particles of paint and metal and honeycomb, after 13 years still lying in the grass where they had come to rest.

The crew took them home.  From the wreckage they created a piece of art for me.

This is the tail number of the aircraft, made of small pieces of wreckage.
This is one of the most thoughtful gifts I have ever received.  I hung it on my wall, where I see it every day.  The past thirteen years haven't all been good, but not everyone gets a second chance. Or has friends like these.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Last, Best Day

The pilot and I looked at each other, unable to believe our luck.  "This is the best work day of the summer!" we decided.

On the surface, it didn't sound too great. I almost skipped it, because I have plenty of employees who could do this mission.  And our cargo was definitely not glamorous...flying a deconstructed outhouse and years of human poop out of a backcountry campsite.

But.  Anytime you get to land a helicopter in Glacier National Park is worth doing.  And when it's in a spectacular cirque called Hole in the Wall Basin,'d be a fool not to go, regardless of cargo.
I backpacked to this campsite years ago.  It is surrounded by waterfalls cascading down the cliffs.  We cooked a gourmet dinner on a camp stove and climbed up to viewpoint to see the sunset.  Peering down, I spied a mountain goat strolling into our campsite.  It grabbed my sweaty shorts off a branch where they were drying and ran off, wanting to chomp on the salt.  Luckily, some other campers headed it off and it dropped the shorts.

Now, we set up the helicopter landing site at the foot of a lake.  Kayakers looked bemused as the helicopter went back and forth over the mountains carrying building pieces and barrels.
 I jumped in the front seat, displacing one of my minions on the mission.  He got to see the basin the day before, and being the boss does have some perks.  We were headed to the campsite to pick up the crew that had to pack up the outhouse and its cargo.  As we settled into the basin, I expected to see a group of 20-somethings who had been pressed into the stinky project.  But instead, the average age of the workers was around 50.  I got the impression that they volunteered for the duty.
And really, why wouldn't you?
The crew happily bounced around the meadow, taking pictures of the helicopter.  The pilot and I took our own, looking around in disbelief.  This was it, the almost-last mission of the summer, to a place that made it all worth it. Soon the helicopter would leave for the winter, and snow would cover this valley, leaving it to the goats and bears.  We were lucky to have been there, if only for a brief moment.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Wandering in the kingdom of the larch

The temperature was 41 degrees as J's truck maneuvered along the bumpy road to the trailhead.  The mountain we were headed for was several thousand feet higher, so it was bound to be in the 30s up there.  But it was a dry fall day, and our days of hiking were numbered.  It could snow tomorrow.  We were committed.

My guidebook recommended this trail as a fall hike, and it soon became clear why.  After stepping over a large pile of bear scat, we ascended into an enchanted forest.

It's easy to overlook larch trees on a hillside until autumn.  Their needles are green like all the other conifers.  But in the fall they turn a glorious shade of yellow before their needles drop for the winter.  This makes the hillsides around here golden.

We passed above a chain of sparkling lakes.  Someday I want to camp here.

The wind bit through our layers.  We only spent a few moments at the high point above 8000 feet.  A lookout once stood here; now only metal bedframes remain.  It must have been an amazing place to work, watching gold spread across the hills.

It was cold, and we left the golden forest to its march towards winter.  I couldn't help looking back though, imagining life in a little cabin among the blazing trees.  I'll be back.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Termination Dust

That's what we used to call it in Alaska, the first dusting of snow on the distant mountains.  When we saw it, we knew it would soon be time for the seasonals to leave, or if not leave, at least stop coming to work.  Although I had an allegedly permanent job there, I was called a "career seasonal": someone who was able to contribute toward retirement and health insurance, but who was placed in several months of non-pay status every year due to lack of funds and/or work.  Termination dust applied to me too.  I usually worked a little longer than the temporary employees, but as the snowline moved lower, it was only a matter of time.

Most of my current minions are ready to go.  One is getting married; another is taking a climbing class.  The rest have plans, ski passes, and not much interest in staying on as it rains and gets colder.  I can't blame them, really.  There are still projects to do, and assignments in California, but they see the termination dust too.  They want to visit friends, travel, do something else.

I'm not ready for winter.  Some friends and I plan a hike to 8000', taking advantage of an Indian summer day.  We have lost a lot of daylight.  I procrastinate buying my ski pass.  But it's only a matter of time.

I know I can live with winter, although it lasts a long time here in the mountains.  I'll snowboard and snowshoe and fill up my hot tub.  Still, summer is so short.  I want to chase it a little longer.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Bear Scare

I hiked down the trail, singing loudly:

The other day, I met a bear,
a great big bear,
away up there.

Anybody besides me know that song?  I'm not sure where I learned it, but it seemed appropriate.  A few minutes earlier, I had my hand on the trigger of my bear spray, waiting for the angry/frightened bear that was thrashing in the brush to come boiling out of the woods.

When I arrived at the trailhead, the parking area was full of cars.  I've never worried about hiking here, because of the number of people usually there, and because this area is not known for bears, at least not as much as the nearby park.  I decided to meander toward my favorite lake in the area.

Only a few huckleberries clung to the bushes.  There were still patches of snow in the shade from the last storm, but it was sunny and quiet at the lakes I passed.

I decided to take a trail I had never hiked before to get back to the trailhead.  "Hey Bear," I yelled intermittently, but not seriously.  There was no bear sign anywhere. 

Suddenly, I heard a snort from the woods, then crashing through the brush.  A bear! I couldn't see through the woods well enough to see what kind it was, but it sounded mad, huffing in an unmistakable way.  The crashing grew closer.  It wasn't running away.

"Go away Bear," I yelled, still walking.  "Lots of people here, with bear spray!" I took the safety off my lone can of repellent. The bear continued to thrash through the brush.  It sounded like it was running back and forth, trying to decide whether to come out.

I felt strangely calm.  This is it, I thought, scanning for trees I could climb.  None looked probable.  At any second I expected the bear to come leaping out of the woods.  I kept walking and yelling.

It worked.  Nervously I continued down the trail.

He looked at me,
I looked at him,
he sized up me,
I sized up him...

At the trailhead, I encountered the wilderness ranger packing up his cabin for the season.  "In the heat of the summer the bears aren't really in here," he said. "But this time of year..." A couple had recently been charged by a sow with a cub at one of the lakes.

It was a good reminder.  We live with bears here.  There are more of them now than ever, and they are being seen in places where they haven't been seen before.  They are coming into town and staying in the valleys.  They are moving out onto the plains. 

The last verse of the song is:

That's all there is,
There ain't no more,
unless I see
that bear once more!

Bear, no offense, but I hope I don't see you again.  I'll be making lots of noise so I don't scare you, and dragging some people along with me next time.  It's almost time to hibernate.  Winter well.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Sharon Stone's Sister Bought Me Ice Cream (and other minor brushes with fame)

I sat in the fire planning meeting, listening to the usual chatter.  Operations, Air Operations (me), Safety, Logistics and Finance all got up and talked.  Night shift, helicopters being released, bears in the area, supplies being ordered, turn in your time sheet!  After several days on the fire, nothing was really new, until..."Sharon Stone's sister wants to do something nice for the firefighters," Information was saying.  "She wants to buy them ice cream!"

Apparently Sharon Stone's sister lives in the area and felt grateful for our efforts.  By the way, how would you like to go through life being referred to as Sharon Stone's sister? ( Her name is Kelly).  Sure enough, boxes of ice cream bars showed up the next day.  While some of us were disappointed that Sharon didn't make an appearance, even more disconcerting than this was that some of the younger firefighters didn't know who she was.  "Who's Sharon Stone?" they asked innocently while munching on Dilly bars.

Sometimes, like grizzly bears, celebrities are attracted to fires.  Arnold Schwarzenegger showed up at fire camp once and addressed the crowd at morning briefing, mostly about climate change.  The public information officers buzzed around like bees.  "No pictures of Arnold! No social media! His people need to approve all photos," they insisted, as everyone took pictures and immediately posted them on social media.
Arnold talks to firefighters. Some people tried to talk to him about working out. Lame.
Mostly, I see famous people in passing.  A mechanic and I waited in a hotel lobby for our usually prompt pilot, when a shortish man charged out of the elevator and strode to the front desk.  We looked at each other.  "Mel Gibson!" we whispered.  Joining us, the pilot refused to believe us.  "Where is he then?" he demanded.  The mechanic pointed out the door, where a red Pathfinder had just pulled up with Mel behind the wheel.  He stared at us, probably thinking, who ARE these weirdos?  The pilot was overjoyed to see that Mel and his entourage were also at the airport, congregating at a private jet near where our helicopter was parked.  Deciding to say hello, he marched in their direction, but lost his nerve as he drew closer, veering off in an odd tangent and then returning, chagrined.

Sometimes I don't even recognize them.  Many years ago, a middle aged man brushed past me at a small airport on his way to a flight lesson.  "That was Harrison Ford," my pilot said.  "No WAY," I responded, but turned around to look.  Sure enough, it was.  However, like my coworker who this year became tongue-tied when Gwen Stefani said hi to him, I couldn't think of anything to say.  Then he met Calista, and my opportunity was lost.  Darn you, Ally McBeal!

We often save their houses and their communities, and though we don't see them that often, I'm sure they appreciate it.  Thanks for the ice cream, Kelly! We'll keep doing what we do, with or without it, but it's nice to know you thought of us.

Monday, August 29, 2016

No rest for the not-so-weary

When firefighters get home from a 14 or 21 day assignment, they get two days of R&R: Rest and relaxation, it's supposed to mean.  I've had those assignments where all I wanted to do was lie around for those two days.  But even though I spent all fifteen days of my last assignment outdoors, I wasn't at all tired.  I knew that out of necessity one day would be spent doing errands and getting everything ready to go for the next fire.  But what to do with the other day? A nineteen mile hike, of course!

Most of the trails in the park are out-and-back, or you have to arrange for a shuttle to hike others.  This one is a true loop.  I last hiked it when I was 22.  Now, there are some things you do when you're 22 that you shouldn't do again, but this trail isn't one of those things.

Full disclosure: we would have totally taken the boat that cuts three miles off this hike.  Work smarter, not harder, plus how often do you get to take a boat to a trailhead? Alas, the boat was full, but the first part of the hike was pleasant anyway, and we ended up ahead of any boat-assisted hikers.

The first lake we came to was called No Name, which when you think about it is kind of confusing, because if it's called No Name, then it has a name.  It was beautiful though, and there were plenty of huckleberries to snack on.  We directed a man reading a bible to the berry patch and hiked on.

The trail climbed to a windswept pass and continued along a treeless ridge to another saddle.  Turquoise lakes glinted below.

By this point we had gone over 10 miles and it would be all (well, mostly) downhill from here.

We slogged along the last few miles, happy to finally glimpse the campground we had parked at hours earlier. Ironically, despite yelling "Hey Bear" for much of the trail, packing four cans of bear spray, and many false alarms that turned out to be rock bears, log bears, and shade bears, we found a huge pile of bear scat less than an eighth of a mile from the frontcountry campground stuffed with people.

Most people I know wouldn't go on a 19 mile hike on an R&R day.  But while I'm not the 22 year old who practically ran this trail years ago, it was the perfect choice.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Fifteen Days in a Field

Usually when you're assigned to a Type 1 helicopter (the big ones), you don't stay anywhere for long.  These helicopters are in demand, because they can carry a lot of water and because they are national contracts, meaning they can go to any state.  When I was with the helicopter in June, we went to five states in two weeks, and I drove over 3500 miles.

I didn't expect this assignment to be any different.  When I showed up, the helicopter was sitting in a field.  I could see the fire on a nearby hillside.  It was pretty big, but I figured we'd be there a few days, maybe a week at the most. Then it rained, and some of the other helicopters left.  The team managing the fire left.  The helicopter didn't fly for six days.  It wouldn't be long now, I thought.

Then the fire came back to life.  Before I knew it, I had spent 15 days in that field.

There wasn't a lot to do when the helicopters were out flying.  The temperatures were in the 90s,  Sadly, a Ford Escape does not create much shade.  We caught up on our paperwork.  I discovered how long you can actually run an inverter without depleting said Ford Escape's battery (not long).  On breaks, the pilots and mechanics sat in their trailer, watching the Olympics.  Unnecessary eating often took place; one pilot claimed he had to go running to avoid the "fire season fifteen." When it cooled down, they emerged to play spirited games of foursquare on the tarmac.

The other helibase personnel tried to stay busy as well.  The New Mexico helitack crew happily collected garbage and delivered bags of ice to the helipads. S. arrived with a miserable case of poison ivy, contracted on his last fire.  "It's really not that bad," he said optimistically, trying not to scratch.  The helibase manager trainee discovered a swimming hole in the local river.  After shift, some of us jumped in.  The Alaskan set up camp there, starting a small fire and cooking dinner.  "This place is keeping me sane," he declared.
Swimming hole!
Out of inertia, I mostly camped in the field.  My routine of work all day, go for a run, jump in the river, and set up my tent, became normal, so much so that when my replacement showed up, I felt oddly reluctant to go.  I wanted to go home, to finally take a shower, and hike with my friends.  But I had made this field my place. I would sort of miss it.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Goldilocks goes camping

Don't get me wrong, I can sleep about anywhere and I have: on crew buggies headed for fires, at high mountain base camps, on a ship wallowing through waves in the Drake Passage, and in a bivy bag on the shore in Antarctica, to name a few.  But if I have a choice, I've realized I can actually be somewhat (gasp!) picky about where I sleep.

I sighed when I realized where my fire assignment was this time.  Loud trains rattle by at all hours in this place; there's really no escaping them. I knew I would have to choose wisely.

Fire camp was out.  Not only are fire camps usually a hotbed of sickness ('camp crud" runs rampant), but there are generators, bright lights, cell phone talkers, and a bastion of snorers who seem to always plunk their tent right next door.  Plus, camp was half an hour's drive away from the helibase on a highway rife with kamikaze deer.  The helibase seemed logical, if it weren't for the aforementioned trains (22 a day, the district ranger gleefully informed us), and a particularly annoying airport beacon. There was also a local dog that barked all night as if it was its job.  A campsite recon was required.

A site high on a bluff had potential, but was inhabited by cows and was even closer to the train.  I drove down another dirt road and found a free campground.  Green and quiet, it was a paradise with a creek running through it.  I happily settled in.
Dark, quiet, no people. Perfect.
However, when I went back the next night, other people had moved in.  A man with seemingly all his possessions piled in the back of  a decrepit car eyed me suspiciously through an aggressive campfire.  It wasn't the same;  the magic was gone.  I dejectedly left.  Back to the helibase it was.

I experimented with a few things.  I found that a person 5"5" or under CAN sleep in the back of a Ford Escape; however there is a daunting ridge that must be padded with clothes, tent bags, or anything at hand.  I discovered that putting up my tent behind the mechanic trailer blocked the beacon.  As for the trains, the noisiest one came by at about 10:30; after that they were somewhat bearable.

Best of all, staying there allowed more time for running on the trails I found and for a refreshing jump in the river.  So while I didn't find that campsite that was "just right," it was tolerable.  A camping Goldilocks like me could live with it.