Sunday, May 21, 2017

Hike with me (please!)

As I drove toward the trailhead, I felt optimistic.  Yes, there are bears everywhere around here, but the trail traverses fairly open terrain, burned in a fire over 10 years ago.  I hiked it by myself last year and didn't even see bear tracks.  The people I had tried to get to come hiking today were sleepy and didn't want to commit.  Still, I had bear spray and could yell "Hey Bear" with the best of them.  Seeing one was pretty unlikely...right?

Some vehicles were stopped in the middle of the road.  This can be pretty typical national park behavior.  Like in Walmart parking lots, people sometimes forget basic driving skills when they enter a park.  However, the people in the cars were gazing intently into the woods.  Memories of my former career as a park ranger began to surface.  This could only be one thing: a bear jam!

Sure enough, a cinnamon colored bear was eating happily a few feet from the road.  Rudely interrupted by the cars, it loped off into the woods, leaving me to continue uneasily toward the trailhead.  Was this a sign? Would my hike be overrun by bears?

Gathering my gear, I spied a woman preparing to set off on the trail.  "Do you want to hike together?" I asked, ambushing her.  In effect, this really gave her no choice unless she wanted to come across as kind of mean.  Luckily, she turned out to be easy going and seemed happy to have a companion.

A. was training to climb Mt. Adams; although the trail gained more than a thousand feet a mile, she moved out rapidly, not bothered by little rolling rocks and snowfields.  We discovered we had worked in some of the same places; she had been a firefighter in the past.  I had found a new hiking buddy!

I don't think you can ever have too many hiking buddies.  My schedule is erratic in the summer, making meetups difficult.  Trail friends go on vacations, have obligations, or get injured.  It's always good to have plenty of people who can join a hike, especially in bear country (four is supposed to be an optimal group size).

We paused at the top, the site of an old fire lookout, before the downhill slog.  Glacier lilies dotted the hillside.  The peaks in the park were still coated in white, but winter had lost its grip at last.  Fire season will be late here, but I don't mind.  After thirty years of fighting fire, I'll take the mountains and trails (and new friends) instead.
View from the top

Sunday, May 14, 2017

how to be found

We just finished a six day search for a lost hiker.  She was found alive and well, but this is unusual.  I've never found a living person in a search before.  During the week, I often thought of younger me.
Looking for Madeline
Younger me, a free spirit, traipsed solo around national parks and forests, usually foregoing essentials like fire starter, many times not informing anyone of hiking destinations or plans.  I like to think I'm smarter now, but realized that I had gone on a hike in the same wilderness in which we were searching only a week earlier.  Because it was a short hike, I rationalized that I didn't need a lot of stuff, and there would probably be people there (there weren't), so I didn't have to leave an itinerary.

If you go missing in my area, we will search for you.  We will risk our own lives scrambling on rough terrain in grizzly bear country and flying low and slow in helicopters.  We will do this whether or not you were really lost, if you did something dumb like jumping in a fast river or venturing out past a warning sign, and we will even search if we really have no idea where you might be.  But if you really want to be found, here are some things to do:

  • Go with someone else.  Or don't, but let someone know where you are going and when you'll be back.  Even a note in your car is better than nothing (we will break into it).
  • Do some research.  I'm constantly surprised at the people I see heading up a 12 mile trail at 4 pm, not knowing where it goes or anything about the area. Sunrise/sunset times are good to know.
  • Carry stuff.  Water, food, warm clothes,  first aid supplies, bear spray if in grizzly habitat.
  • Bring something to start a fire.  It will keep you warm on an unexpected bivouac, and you can use it to signal searchers.  You can see smoke a long way away, and believe me, if you start a fire, firefighters will come.
  • Consider carrying personal locator beacons, SPOT receivers, etc. 
  • Take your phone.  Even if there's no service, if you turn it on, your location can be pinged.
  • Please, for all that is good and holy, don't leave your common sense at the trailhead.  Warning signs are there for a reason.  Rivers are cold and fast in the spring.  Bears are grumpy and need to hear you coming. 
  • Be aware.  If you go off trail, memorize landmarks.  Take  a map and compass, or carry a GPS, but know how to use them.
Being part of a search party is pretty terrible.  You think of all the things that could have happened: bear attacks, drowning, hypothermia.  The parents are often there, desperately holding onto hope.  You wish that the person had just told someone their plans, turned back sooner, carried more gear.  Finding the body is almost a relief sometimes.  At least then you know.

If you disappear, we will look for you.  But before you step on the mountain or the trail, please take a moment to think.  Please help us find you.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

My phone thinks I'm lazy, and other randomness

I've been traveling so much for work lately that I haven't had many outdoor adventures.  It's still snowy in the mountains, so there aren't any fires to report.  Hence, a list of miscellaneous observations from the last week.

I have a step app on my phone.  It came with it, but I never really use it, because I don't take my phone into the gym, to run, or really anywhere I would generate steps, unless I take it hiking so I can take pictures.  Consequently, my phone is pretty disappointed with me.  "You haven't been very active lately," it chastises.  "Do you want to readjust your goal?" It seemed unreasonably happy when I got 40,000 steps while climbing a volcano in Iceland, but now it seems I keep letting it down.

I saw two people smoking outside the gym and thought it was pretty funny.  If I were a smoker, I'd probably walk over by the grocery store instead.

The person in the middle seat on the plane always gets the armrests! ALWAYS.  Why do people still not know this?

You can grow out of a lot of things.  Apparently, an allergy to poison ivy is not one of these things.

I'm so used to traveling by myself that I'm probably somewhat annoying at times to a travel companion.  I don't want to sit next to a bunch of other people in the airport, worry that I'll get a middle seat if mine is unassigned (I did), and announce that we are going to miss our connection (we did).  Sorry...

Southern hospitality is a real thing.  Why are you people so nice?

I've been seeing men wearing leggings, and not just in the gym.  Men in leggings: pro or con? Discuss.

Speaking of leggings, most men seem to think that yoga pants and leggings are the same thing. No, no, no.  They are not.

That's about it in this corner of the blogiverse.  What's going on in yours?









Saturday, April 29, 2017

The light at the end of the tunnel

On the surface, Thursday looked like any other day.  It was rainy and chilly.  I was in a week long class about how to plan memorials for line of duty deaths and how to care for survivors and families.  It was inspiring, but also depressing.  I felt somewhat irritable and sad.

BUT.  Despite appearances, Thursday was a unique day.  It was the day I was eligible to retire.

Retirement often conjures up an image of an elderly person, but, although I may seem old to the 21 year olds I hire, I'm not elderly.  I'm also (unfortunately) not a millionaire, one of the other categories of people who can retire early.  I am, however, a federal wildland firefighter, and we (along with law enforcement) have this benefit.

Long ago, it was determined that firefighters needed to be "young and vigorous." No oldsters wanted on the fireline! Because of this, you can't get initially hired into a permanent firefighting or law enforcement position after age 37.  At age 57, they kick you out.  Before 57, if you have 20 years in as a permanent employee at age 50 (seasonal time doesn't count if it was after 1989), or 25 years at ANY age, you can retire with full benefits.

It sounds great.  And really, it is.  Very few people can or want to be digging fireline and carrying 50 pound packs for 16 hours a day at age 65, and we don't have to.  Many of my coworkers have slipped discs, aching shoulders, and little cartilage left in their knees 20 years before that.  But there are some drawbacks.

Not many of us can afford to fully retire at 50, or even 57.  We don't make very much money considering the hazardous work we do.  A brand new college graduate in a lot of fields out earns many of us in the height of our careers.  Old firefighters used to be able to move into dispatch, but now there are career dispatchers we can't out compete for the jobs.  Spending so much time fighting fire, we are often left without the skills to do something else.

There's always options though.  Many retirees come back in the summer to get picked up on an as needed basis if there are fires.  You can go work for a state agency; they don't care how old you are.  You can go back to work at the agency in some other capacity if you have the ability.  Some people have saved enough that they don't need to do anything at all.

I still went to work on Friday.  I don't know what the future holds.  I could stick it out until they make me leave, or three consecutive bad days in a row could make the decision for me.  It's a little frightening, but also exciting.  Every footstep on the fireline and every helicopter flight has eventually led to this new chapter.  I'm looking forward to writing it.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Where's the fire?

Every once in awhile I realize that the word "fire" is in the title of this blog, but in fact I don't write that often about fire.  Sometimes I think I should, but then I think, not really.

Sometimes, not very often, I'll come across a fire blog.  Most of the time they have been abandoned for years.  If it's a new one, the person will write earnestly about firefighting tactics and strategies.  He or she might second guess the decisions made during fatality fires.  But usually these blogs die out, or cease to be interesting except to new firefighters.  The ones that remain still talk about fire, but also other things: hiking, photography, or thoughts about life.

I recently took a class on resilience and work/life balance.  It was all the stuff we know, but don't always do.  Exercise (well, I do that), nutrition (I try!) and your life beyond the workplace (I'm not always so great at that).  As a firefighter, it's easy to tip the balance.  It's a demanding job.  You're gone a lot.  You don't get vacations in the summer, or holidays, or special events.  You spend more time with your coworkers than anyone else.

But we are ultimately all replaceable.  Fires eventually go out.  The job takes a toll on your body and for some, your mental state.  Firefighter suicide rates are high.  I've known a few people who have taken that path.  There has to be something else besides the job, even if it is your passion.

So I'll still write about fire, but today here is a picture of a lake I hiked to.  It's not a long hike, but there was still a lot of snow.  Even in snowshoes, I slid around and fell in.  I saw bear tracks and thought about turning around, but instead yelled louder.  The lake is just now starting to lose its winter ice.

It'll be a long time before fire comes to this forest.  It's barely spring here.  But there's plenty of time for that.  I'd rather be out here today, in the snow and sunshine.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Hi. Go Away.

There are some people who don't seem to need a lot of personal space, especially in airports.  They will happily come and sit next to you with their Wendy's or Cinnabon, even though there are lots of empty seats.  They will talk on their phone, and probably talk to you, too (the weirdest cell phone conversation I've heard at an airport was a guy asking if the FBI had found the body yet.  Now, that guy I would talk to).  They might ask you to watch their bag. 

I'm not one of those people.  I don't know about you, but I think airports are the worst lately.  They're always crowded and noisy, and people don't seem to know how to stand in line as they hurry to get on the plane to fill up YOUR bin space with their humongous rolly bag.  As someone with a larger personal space bubble than most, I've had to adapt.

This is it, the holy grail of the layover:

No people within a hundred foot radius at least! No flights departing anytime soon from the nearest gate.  Quiet, except for the loudspeaker, repeating on a loop "this is a regional jet and bin space is limited.  Larger roller bags will not fit onboard.."  Plenty of room for me to eat my $15 sandwich and read my book.

Sometimes it takes time and tenacity to find a good spot.  You have to walk around a lot and visit other terminals.  In Phoenix I found a little nook around a corner, unusable for anything except for a weary traveler to sit and be unseen by the crowds.  A large area of tables isn't so private, but nobody will probably sit by you, and if you're in Seattle, there might be live music there.  If you're really lucky it will be a woman with an electric violin who calls herself Razzvio.  I still think longingly of the comfortable reclining chairs at the Amsterdam airport (does anyone know if they are still there?)

For some reason I feel more tolerant on my international trips.  Maybe it's because I really want to go there, and I'm not on a work trip that I just want to get over with (sorry, boss).  I happily sat on the floor for hours in the Bangkok airport, talking to a couple who was going to hike the Annapurna circuit.  Also, the concept of a large amount of personal space is a pretty western idea: I've had to be more flexible in some countries.

I'm really not as unfriendly as this might sound.  If you see me in the airport, come talk! Really! But you have to find me first.  In the meantime, if you invent a time travel machine, sign me up!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The in between seasons

A long time ago, I lived in Hawaii.  It was less than a year, because my job was seasonal, but long enough to see what it might be like if I decided to move there.  There were a lot of good things: walking around in flip flops and shorts, the ocean, the street dances the locals took me to.  It rained sometimes, but unless it was a serious storm, it moved on pretty quickly.  There weren't distinct seasons though (locals might differ; I saw people wearing coats when it was 70 degrees).

Where I live now, we have distinct four seasons, and although I've been known to complain about this, particularly when perched on my roof shoveling snow off it, there's something reassuring about dividing the year up in this way.  It's like the chapters of a book.  You might really enjoy reading one section of it, but you're always looking forward to the next one.

What's a little more problematic are the in-betweens.  Technically it's spring, but it's snowing in the mountains today.  This is closing day at the local ski resort; they have a Forest Service lease they must abide by, and it's time to give the mountain back to the bears.  Today I put my snowboard back up in the rafters of the garage, but my kayak still sits in there; it's too cold and rainy for me to take it out just yet.  Hiking still requires snowshoes or a lot of postholing.  I tried to run on the trails at work, only to be stymied by deep snow.

In between seasons requires creativity and flexibility.  There's always the gym, and the roads are clear enough for biking, if it gets warm enough.  The trails near my house are a muddy mess but possible for running because they are at a low elevation and well traversed by dog walkers.  Soon (July?) the high country will be open for hiking.

I always feel a little sad putting away the current season's gear.  I think maybe I should have snowboarded more, or hiked one more trail.  It's good to have something to look forward to though.  Bring on the summer!
 
See you later, ski area!



Monday, April 3, 2017

Three days in the vortex

Sedona, Arizona has beautiful red rock formations.  There are miles of hiking trails, and canyons with sparkling streams running through them.  The sun shines there 295 days of the year.  But vortices?

Well, maybe.  If you believe in it, a vortex is a place where energy is either entering or projecting from the earth, usually in a spiral.  Supposedly some people can feel them.  The earth is said to be especially alive in these places.  People say all of Sedona is a vortex, but there are some places there where the energy is especially strong.

Sneaking off there for a few days, I hiked and ran on the trails, escaping the rain and snow at home.  I climbed up on the red rocks, looking for natural arches.  Although a lot of other people had the same idea, I was able to find some solitude.

Did I feel the vortex? Well...not really, but I never heard the Taos Hum when I was there, either.  But I don't discount it.  There's a lot of mystery in the world and a lot that we don't know.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

When good workouts go bad (and vice versa)

I drove happily to the ski hill.  It was a week day, so there shouldn't be too many people there.  The sun was out.  What could go wrong?

Arriving at the lift, I gazed up at the front side runs.  The skiers already up there were making slow, big turns.  Oh no!  This could only mean one thing.  Ice!

But I was already there, so I got on a chair.  The wind suddenly increased.  Ice and wind?  Still, how bad could it be?

I bumped my way down the run.  The "grooming irregularities" threw me off.  My turns were tentative.  I caught an edge and fell, something I hadn't done in a long time.  A mountain host skied up to me.  "You must have won the boardercross yesterday," he said.  Ha ha ha.  I couldn't be mad, though; it was funny.  I made myself do a few more runs, but it just wasn't my day.

Today, I slowly gathered my stuff, trying to talk myself out of it.  It was a sunny Sunday, bound to be busy.  It might be icy again; there hadn't been any new snow.  I couldn't come up with a good excuse though, so I headed out to meet the ski bus.

Surprise.  Hardly anyone was there.  The snow was fast but soft.  The slopes were wide open and I rode the lift by myself.  I did more runs than I planned.

I often wonder why this happens.  A three mile run can seem like 10 one day.  Hills surveyors would miss seem difficult.  A weight I can usually easily lift seems tough sometimes.  A short hike feels like a death march.  Conversely, on days I really, really don't want to run, the miles are effortless.  Faced with a big mountain to climb and feeling uncertain, I end up being one of the strongest in the party.

Discounting any obvious reasons of illness, injury, or overtraining, I think it's nature's way of keeping you humble.  Think you're all that? Well, here's a day when you count every minute of your run and can't wait for it to be over.  And on the other hand, just when you're convinced you're no good at a sport and should give it up, here comes the best day ever.

Today was a good day.  Who knows how tomorrow's run will go.  But that's what keeps it interesting.









Sunday, March 19, 2017

Older but wiser

My friends and I compare notes.  Runner's knee. An aching hamstring and sore hip.  Tennis elbow.  A mysterious pulled muscle in the back of the shoulder.  We talk about skipping runs for the elliptical, and avoiding certain weight exercises for awhile.  We joke about getting old, but we wouldn't have these aches and pains if we sat on the couch. 

Over twenty-five years ago, Bonnie sat under the visqueen that was keeping our sleeping bags and fire packs semi-dry from the torrential rain that had already put our fire out.  She was talking about why she had taken a job mentoring kids in the Youth Conservation Corps.

"I want them to know that even though I'm thirty, I can still do everything," she said, meaning building trails and fighting fire.  Younger than she was, we nodded solemnly. It made sense. We all knew people who, as the years went by, just decided they were old.  Their backs and knees would inevitably hurt.  They stopped doing things.

Thirty isn't considered old anymore except by some millennials who don't know any better.  And I'm happy to see that there are a lot of people out there like my friends, who are still getting after it.  When I'm picking berries on a certain mountain trail,  there seems to be a steady stream of men in their 60s and 70s running up the steep path to the summit.  Senior citizens chase the vertical at the ski area.  Gray haired hikers are all over the woods.

As a firefighter, I can usually still keep up with the 21 year olds, but I have to be smarter.  Some of these guys can play computer games and eat chips all winter and start running again two weeks before the season starts, but I can't.  I have to keep going.  If they feel a twinge of pain, they push through it, whereas I have to analyze: what's wrong now? maybe I should ride a bike today instead of run.  I pack lighter than they do, preferring to suffer by sleeping a little colder and eating less food rather than packing 55 pounds in my fire pack through the woods along with everything else we have to carry.

So we discuss our aches and pains, but we know we came by them because we're out there running, hiking, and snowboarding.  We're not planning on stopping anytime soon.  So if you see us on the trail, packing bear spray and wearing hiking skirts (except the guys), you better get to stepping, or we'll be passing you.  See you out there!