Sunday, April 22, 2018

CSI: Laundry

Since my Laundromat days are far behind me, I don't mind doing laundry.  It kind of appeals to my sense of order.  And because I rarely use the dryer, but hang things on a drying rack instead, it gives me a chance to contemplate what my week was like.

Some examples:

A preponderance of leggings/shorts and tank tops: I spent a lot of time at the gym.  It must have been pretty icy or snowy, or there would be more running tights and jackets mixed in. 

Hiking pants or shorts/zip fleece or wool shirts:  I was outdoors a lot, on trails.  I had some time off, and the weather was good.  Chances are I made some new friends and hiked with them, or met up with old ones.  It's not very busy at work.

Lots of t-shirts:  It's been busy at work with fires, or I just came back from an assignment.  Long sleeved Ts mean it's cold, but the fire is still hanging on and must be dealt with.  If my laundry is filled with these shirts, I'm making money but not having many days off.

Nicer clothes:  A work trip, training or meetings.  I probably had to use the hotel gym, so there won't be any outdoor workout wear.  These clothes could also mean events with friends, but not as likely, because my friends and I tend to hike and do outdoors things together.

Yoga pants/hoodies:  It's been cold and I've been hunkered down at home (especially if cat fur is in evidence).  Some hermit tendencies might be emerging.

I recently washed my snowboarding clothes and put them away for the summer.  The ski area closed at the beginning of April; they have a lease from the Forest Service and must close at the same time every year to give the grizzly bears some peace and quiet.  There's still plenty of snow, and diehards are skinning up the mountain and skiing down still.  Not me; it's time to move on.

The best weeks have a mix of all kinds of clothes: hiking, running, gym, visits with friends, and some alone time.  It was almost 60 degrees today, so it's time to dig out the tank tops and summer dresses (I think. You never know, in a mountain town).  What does the future hold? Hiking, biking, trail running?  The laundry will tell the tale.

What's in your laundry basket? Does it represent what you've been up to?

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Fire years

"There aren't fire seasons anymore; there's fire years," someone at work says.

This is true.  There used to be no need for most firefighters, unless they were supervisors, to work year round.  While some forests, refuges, and parks in the south have always had seasonal fire crews in the winter time, they often were used mostly for prescribed fire and small brush fires.  Now we are seeing large fires every month of the year, and in many unexpected places.

My employees have been out on assignment every month of the year.  Currently one of them is in Oklahoma, where fires have recently evacuated towns and burned homes.  There have been fires in Colorado already.  I even heard of one in Alaska about a month ago.  If I had been able to leave my work behind, I could have been gone all winter.  There's too much to do, though; too much paperwork, too much preparedness.

It's been a snowy winter here where I live.  There is still two feet of snow at the helibase, and there was a winter storm warning last week.  People are worried about flooding.  Still, the weather service is predicting an above normal fire season here.

Winter used to be the quiet time for most of us.  That's changing.  You may not hear about it, but every month of the year there is a fire somewhere, and firefighters on the line, trying to stop it.

Fire in Oklahoma.  Courtesy CBS News.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

How to keep up with 21 year olds*

*when you're definitely not one

The fireline doesn't care how old you are.  Unless you are the boss, in which case you may be able to drive around in a truck or post up at a high point as lookout for your crew, you are expected to carry the same amount and do the same work whether you are 18 or 50.  Going through helicopter rappel training at 60 (I knew someone who did, the amazing Geo) doesn't make you exempt from the 100 pound packouts.

Yet, every season the rookies seem younger.  I had one last year who was born in 1996, for heaven's sake.  With some exceptions, it is possible to keep up with these young pups though.  Here's what I've learned from years of seeing them come and go.

--Don't take long breaks from training.  Young folks can take weeks or even a month off and bounce back pretty quickly.  Sadly, this gets a lot harder the older you get.  It's better to just stay the course and keep working out. 

--Train smarter, not harder.  I've known plenty of young guys who will charge out of the gate, seemingly having only two speeds, on and off.  Eventually they will hit the wall, while you cruise serenely by.  Knowing how to pace yourself and how your body reacts to training is important.

--Want it more.  My friends and I regularly reel in millennials on hiking trails and pass them.  Part of this is due to the fact that we are in good shape and not all younger people are these days.  But determination goes a long way too.

--Eat some green stuff.  I know 20-somethings who seem fueled by energy drinks, sugar, and cigarettes, yet can run 6 minute miles easily.  This stops working as well as the years go by.

--Don't ignore random aches and pains.  While in our younger years we could walk it off, at this point it's best to pay attention.  Your body is trying to tell you something.  If you ignore it, you could wind up with a chronic injury.  Cross train, stretch, drink water, use a foam roller...whatever works for you, and see a professional if necessary.

And there is always another solution:

--Use treachery.  If you design the workout, the other people doing it won't know how long/how far/how difficult it is.  They may then slow down/complain/feel tired earlier.  On one crew, we would hide a vehicle in a small canyon a few miles down a sun-baked road through the high desert.  We would then tell the crewmembers they had to run until they got to the truck.  We then ran merrily along, knowing it was only about four miles, while the newbies, not seeing any sign of a vehicle, struggled along in growing despair.  This technique is very effective!

Granted, there are always outliers, and sayings like "age is just a number" are sometimes wishful thinking.  When I was 21 I could run every day on pavement without anything hurting and win races without trying all that hard.  But these days there are plenty of 40 and 50 year old firefighters out there hiking up hills, carrying heavy packs, and showing everyone how it's done.  These are my people! I'll see you out there.

Sunday, April 1, 2018


You know those times when you look out the window and the weather looks amazing, but when you go outside it's actually really cold?

This happens to me all the time! I'll look outside, think it looks really warm, so I'll go out to run in a T-shirt and shorts.  Then once I'm outside, I realize it's much chillier than I thought, or there's a previously undetected wind.  But I'm already out there, and it's too much trouble to go back, so I shiver through the first mile until I warm up.

I discovered there's actually a word for this phenomenon!  It's Gluggave├░ur, an Icelandic word that means "window-weather," the kind of weather that is nice to look at, but not experience.

Why don't we have this word (besides not being able to pronounce it)?  I could see its usefulness in many situations:

"I didn't run very far today, but it was because of the window-weather."

"It looked so nice out during the meeting and I wished I had gone skiing instead, but I was relieved to see it was just window-weather."

"You better pack more layers for the hike today.  Don't be fooled by the window-weather."

As if there weren't enough reasons to love Iceland already!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The spaces we leave behind

A small plane flew into a snowstorm over a place called Berners Bay in Alaska, between Haines and Juneau.  The pilot radioed that there was zero visibility and he was turning back.  The plane was never seen again.

A lot of people knew Scott better than I did.  We worked together for a couple of seasons in the North Cascades, a hiker and climber paradise, part of a gypsy seasonal tribe.  Scott was a backcountry ranger, living for the summer in a floating cabin at Lightning Creek, far up the lake, while I was mostly stuck at the visitor center or the campgrounds in the front country, leading nature walks and answering questions.

I saw him often, though.  He would bring the park boat to the foot of the lake to pick me up when I wanted to spend the night at Desolation Lookout, a fire watcher's cabin once home to Jack Kerouac, where the writer suffered through a season missing women and whiskey and wrote a book called Desolation Angels.  If I joined Scott on lake patrol, I was able to skip 18 miles of the trail and instead only tackle the five mile, five thousand foot push to the summit.  Once, coming down to meet his boat, I met Scott hiking up the trail holding a flower guidebook.  He smiled at me and the sun lit up his face.  I was fascinated.  I never told him.

We went on our first fire together.  It was 21 days of dirty, monotonous work punctuated by moments of sheer terror as we were chased off a peak by the fire front, then two days "R&R" in a dusty state park before we went back for more.  I loved it, but Scott didn't.  He wanted to get back to his mountains.  I didn't blame him.  He and his climbing partner were already pioneering big routes back then; I only had inquisitive park visitors and noisy roommates to go back to.

Scott and I went backpacking together, spending the night sleeping under the stars at another fire lookout.  "It's cold; we should zip our sleeping bags together," he said.  Young and shy, I laughed awkwardly, treating it as a joke.  Maybe it was; I'll never know.  The next morning I had to hike back to my car and he had already planned to take a different route out.  I lent him my stove and watched him walk away down the trail.

I joined a fire crew and then left the park for a hotshot crew.  We lost touch.  Nobody had cell phones back then.  We would exchange addresses, usually those of our parents', because we moved every six months and mail often didn't follow. I knew he was out there still: reading a magazine, I saw his picture in a Patagonia ad.  I would sometimes run into people who knew him.  Like everyone else in our roaming group, I thought I would eventually see him again.

But I didn't.  Years later I read the news in the park service morning report.   Aerial searches went on for days, but Scott, the pilot, and the plane were never found.

I look at pictures of the place where Scott has probably been for almost twenty years.  It is beautiful and lonely, with isolated beaches, forests, and the mountains he loved.

If I could tell him something, I would say that people still miss him.  His climbing partner still mourns.  I would tell him about that day, the one only I am alive to remember now, what it was like to walk alone down the mountain and meet him coming up from the shore.  And what it felt like to see him look up and smile at me.  It was like the sun coming out on a cloudy day, a perfect moment that is now frozen in time and memory.  I can still see him.
Scott as I remember him.  Climb on, Scott.  Photo by John Dittli. 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

two truths and a lie

The dreaded word "icebreaker" was uttered at my last meeting.  I glumly filed over to my group with visions of trust falls and the telephone game.

Instead, we were playing Two Truths and a Lie.  If you've never played this, each person comes up with three statements about him or herself.  One is a lie and the others are true. The group must then guess which is the lie.  The intention is to "get to know each other better." I silently debated whether I really wanted to know them better  tried to come up with something interesting, which is hard to do on the spot. 

Luckily, some other people went first.  We learned that Rob's favorite food was broccoli (we thought that was the lie) and that Todd raised sheep and goats.  When it was my turn I came up with:

1.  I've climbed to Camp 1 on Mt. Everest.
2.  I have a twin sister.
3.  I grew up in Michigan.

The group bought the Everest story easily.  "You don't have a twin sister," a woman I'd never met before stated.  "You didn't grow up in Michigan!" the rest declared.

My conclusion was this: if people easily believe that you've been to Camp 1 on Mt. Everest over growing up in the Midwest, you are leading a pretty interesting life.

You have to go through the Icefall to get to Camp 1.  Nope, nope, nope.  Photo from AFP.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Rules for work meetings

First, someone is always late.  This prompts a flurry of comments.  "He said he would be here."  "I'll just text her."  "I'll go check his office." Someone sets off to find the missing person, at which point he strolls in, holding the cup of coffee that made him late.  "Sorry I'm late," he says (he's not really sorry).  "Bob went to find you!" somebody says.  "I'll go look for Bob..." somebody volunteers.

Remember when people used to say that computers were going to make us a paperless society? Um, there's more paper than ever, especially at meetings! Copies of the agenda, spreadsheets, memos...they all make the rounds.

Somebody likes to hear him or herself talk.  She goes on and on, until you zone out.  Then at the worst possible time, she suddenly asks, "What's your opinion on that (insert your name here)?" Uh-oh, what was she talking about?

At some point in the meeting you will end up on a committee, in charge of organizing something, or tasked with some sort of research.  You have a choice here.  You can accept the inevitable, or you can volunteer your assistant for it.  If your assistant isn't there, the choice is easy.

The question will come up: should we power through until 1:00 and be done, or take a lunch break? Usually a lone, hungry dissenter opts for the break, which means that the meeting will go on even longer; hunger will no longer motivate an earlier ending, and people will think of more topics over lunch.

Somebody will have to leave early, claiming to have a conference call or another meeting more important than this one.  The rest will watch their retreating form enviously.  Maybe they can be volunteered for something.

There will be an elephant in the room.  Not a real one, that would be pretty cool.  This one is a topic that everyone knows needs to be dealt with but nobody wants to bring up.  It's 4:59 and you think you've dodged the bullet, until someone takes a deep breath.  "What about..." he begins. OH NO HE DIDN'T, everyone thinks.  But yes, he did, and you might as well put your stuff back down, because you're going to be there for awhile.

Finally the meeting is over.  But really, is it?  "When should we have our next meeting?" the facilitator asks.  Everyone pulls out their phones or planners and picks a date.  Oh look, good news! It appears you can't go, but your assistant is available!

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The "secret" waterfall

Some states haven't had much of a winter. I have employees out in some of these places fighting fire.  However, I don't currently live in one of those states.

There's more snow in the high country than I've seen in the seven years I've lived here. Roads have been closed, and communities cut off from the rest of civilization by huge snowdrifts. And the snow keeps falling.

I decided to snowshoe to a waterfall that I hike to frequently. The trailhead was inaccessible, the road closed by wind driven snow. I climbed through the forest, following a snowshoe track. Most years you don't need snowshoes or skis on this part of the trail. This year you do.

The spur trail to the waterfall isn't marked. It's a social trail, easy to miss unless you know where it is. You follow a creek, climbing over downed trees and up cliffs. Nobody had taken the route in a long time. Despite being on snowshoes, I sank almost to my knees. Even in summer, you have to watch your footing closely. It would be easy to slip and fall into the creek if you weren't careful. I checked the snow ahead of each step with a trekking pole. Sometimes it disappeared into a large hole, a hidden gap between rocks or downed trees.

Finally the waterfall appeared. Usually a tall column of ice, it was mostly snow covered. But at its base some water flowed, signifying that spring was coming someday.

I picked my way back towards the main trail, encountering another hiker taking advantage of the route I had created. The snow sparkled in the sun. Nobody else was around.

The next time I hike to the waterfall there probably won't be any ice. I might be wearing shorts. I will be able to move faster. But there's something about getting to a place like this in deep winter. It feels like a secret, hidden place, as if I'm the only one who knows it's there.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

What happens in...

"I haven't been outside in three days!" I exclaimed in disbelief.  I tried to remember the last time this had happened.  I came up with...never?

I wasn't in prison or a biosphere experiment.  I was only in Las Vegas, helping to teach a class. It was the first time I'd been there just for work.  Since I had to spend hours in the classroom, I felt like an observer of the local wildlife, instead of a participant.

Going to the hotel gym at 6 am, I saw people grimly sitting in front of slot machines, where they had possibly spent the night.  Inside, it was impossible to tell what time of day it was.  The lights stayed bright all night long.  You could find any kind of food you wanted. There was a full size movie theater.  It was like a strange, artificial world.  Only without any kind of weather in it.
The instructor gave homework: practice some communication styles.  A student tried this, generously offering to buy a well-dressed woman a drink.  He then learned that by doing this he had unknowing engaged the lady's $1000 a night services.  Luckily, she realized his country boy status and let him in on the code, allowing him to flee with his honor, and wallet, intact.

A woman in the class announced that she had won a lot of money the night before.  "Enough to buy the whole class lunch?" the teacher asked.  She looked around the room at the 40 students.  "Actually, yes," she said.  Given that the cost of food was wildly inflated in the casino, we were impressed.  However, she elected to hold on to her winnings.

I ventured out only to find that Vegas was having an unseasonable cold snap.  There was only one thing to do: go to a show called Inferno, with a magician and lots of fire.

The class was a success, but I needed to get outside.  I hurried into my local woods at home.  The snow was deep.  The local dog walkers had apparently fallen down on their job of packing down the trails.  It was cold and windy, but it felt good to be away from the fluorescent lights and lingering cigarette smoke.  It's always good to visit other places; I think it keeps you open minded.  But then it's good to get back to who you really are.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Horror!

There are a lot of things that can be scary about this job.  There is fire itself, obviously; pilot error, mechanical failure, and unwise management decisions, to list a few.  But there is one aspect that can strike terror into even a veteran supervisor's heart.  It can be so awful to contemplate that you'd almost rather run into the Blair Witch (well, almost).  That's's HIRING.

A necessary evil, hiring is something that must be faced every year.  If a permanent employee hasn't fled to another job and opened up a spot, there's always seasonal vacancies.  Easy, right? After all, they only work about 6 months a year, and there are often over 150 names on the referral list.  How hard can it be?

"Please don't offer a job to that guy," J. begged.  We had the same person on our lists, and he was showing interest in both places. "Nobody else wants to come here," he added sadly.  Foiled again, I returned to my list.  It had looked so promising when it arrived, but out of the mass quantities of applicants, most had applied to as many locations as possible, and had already accepted jobs, or remained elusive, not answering phone calls, playing the offers as long as possible.

A supervisor of a hand crew sympathized.  OK, I might have whined.  "You can hire someone off my list," she offered.  It was a long shot, but I ambushed C. when he may have been in a moment of weakness, also known as college exam time.  Even though it wasn't the kind of crew he had anticipated working on, he gamely accepted, and he must have liked it, because he says he's coming back for another summer.

Even if you fill your roster, it's nerve wracking not to know anything about these people.  My crew is small, so if the dreaded Bad Apple makes an appearance, it can affect the whole season.  In my career there have been a few:  the Inappropriate Remarks Man, the Terminal Laziness Sufferer, and the Just Plain Odd (later charged with a horrible crime).

Probably the worst is the Bait and Switch.  This person starts off great.  They are the bomb!  But soon their real self comes out in all their policy-breaking, strange-behaving glory.  How could you have been so wrong about them?

As I write this, all the fire supervisors in this region are awaiting their seasonal lists, which will all come out on the same day.  We are poised to attack, keyboards at the ready, to snag the best applicants.  Wish us luck.  We are going in!