Monday, April 12, 2021

Hiking in the time of corona

A little over a year ago, I stopped trusting some of my friends, and they probably stopped trusting me.  Being a first responder, I didn't have the luxury of working from home.  I tried my best to avoid the dreaded covid, but I had to interact with other firefighters, pilots and the public every day. People at work were getting the virus all around me (I'm proud that my fire crew stayed covid-free). 

As for my hiking buddies, I knew some of them were embracing a hermit-like lifestyle, but others weren't quite so careful. As the pandemic wore on and restaurants and bars were opening, they started going out. They posted pictures on Facebook of themselves hiking in large groups. They frequented unmasked places, like church. 

As hard as it was, I had to avoid them. People in the next tier, the mostly cautious, I would meet at trailheads instead of driving together. This once resulted in four cars, each with one person, traversing a long, snowy road, which was pretty silly, but virus-free. A few people stayed in the inner circle; I  sometimes drove with them, but often met them at the trail too.

Now that I'm nearing my vaccineversary (I made that up), I'm ready to let go of this stress. I'm aware that no vaccine works 100% of the time, but the people I hike with are also now vaccinated or planning to get it soon. Some things won't change ( I'm still not a fan of big groups) but it's definitely a relief. The bears are coming out too, so it's time to hit the trail with friends.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

(more) dumb stuff I've done in the woods

 Just when you thought it was safe to go in the woods, here I am again, doing more dumb stuff! Actually, you're pretty safe: most of these things happened awhile ago. However, you're sometimes just one forgetful moment away from having a silly moment in the forest. In reality, I remembered more things I've done, so here we go, with some of the dumb stuff I've done out there:

Believed a guy when he said he knew the way out of the woods. Much floundering ensued, accompanied by mirth on the part of the rest of the crew when they had to come get us almost a mile away from the vehicles.

Believed a map and didn't check with locals, leading to crashing through brush at two a.m. in bear country and an illegal campfire in a national park.

Accidentally sprayed myself with bear spray.

Almost caught a fire lookout on fire by putting a piece of wood into the stove that was too big, then having to pull the flaming wood out of the stove and throw it off the catwalk.

Was sure the big, angry buffalo that I drove by would be gone after I parked and went running back the same route. It wasn't.

Took a potty break behind the Land Rover in the Serengeti, neglecting to see the leopard perched nearby in a tree.

Saw a mountain lion while running, continued running in blissful ignorance.

Didn't seam seal an old tent; it rained.

Didn't want to carry a sleeping bag into the Grand Canyon, figured it would be hot, carried a sheet and rolled up like a burrito on the beach; froze.

Succumbed to peer pressure and skied down a big hill instead of taking off skis like I wanted to; broke my ankle.

Told my group of hikers that I knew the way; ended up at the wrong lake.

Neglected to properly vent a can of chili on a campfire in the Yellowstone backcountry, causing it to burst and my companion to yell "bear bait" as we picked up beans from the dirt.

I'm unlikely to do most of these things again; however, dumbness in the woods is always lurking. In fact, I confidently told my friend that she wouldn't need snowshoes or hiking poles the other day; as we postholed through the forest, she may have been thinking, this is dumb!

Hopefully not about to do something dumb

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Dumb stuff I've done in the woods

 People often ask my advice about hiking trails. They want to know where they should go, what the conditions are, what they should take. I might be forgiven for thinking I'm some kind of expert or something. 

But behind every expert is a long list of lessons learned, things they could have done better. As I hiked back out of a trail today with wet boots after a water mishap, I reflected on some of the missteps in my outdoor life. Let's begin! In the (in some cases, not so distant) past, I:

Forgot an important item, such as microspikes, insect repellant, bear spray, etc, that was essential to that day's success. Once I forgot my whole backpack! Luckily, I was close enough to my house that I could go back and grab it.

Ran out of water, once shamefully asking a fire lookout for some (I would never do this now, instead I would suffer, but it was a long time ago).

Ran out of food.

Didn't bring rain gear. Needed rain gear.

Went running during a tornado watch.

Got temporarily misplaced and had to look for the trail.

Caught my hair on fire.

Neglected to set new tent up before the backpacking trip, leading to an hour's worth of flailing at the campsite trying to figure it out.

Didn't make enough noise and surprised a bear.

Attempted to hike in snow wearing sandals.

Got my vehicle stuck driving ill-advised roads to trailheads.

Had my brakes go out going down a winding, narrow logging road coming back from a trail.

Jumped off a rock into poison oak.

Refused to pack air mattress to save weight; campsite was rocky.

Climbed up places without thinking about how scary it would be to climb down them.

Fell through thin ice when trying to step off the shoreline of an allegedly frozen lake.

Wore shorts; encountered stinging nettles and devils club.

Changed into pants at campsite and climbed to a viewpoint to watch the sunset, leaving shorts out to dry; looked down and saw a mountain goat making off with the shorts.

Ignored tide charts and attempted to cross a bay that was rapidly filling with water; had to sprint back to the other side.

Let go of kayak while getting in it and had to run along the river bank trying to grab it.

If the people who asked me for advice only knew! But what's important is that you learn from your mistakes, right?

Anybody else have any silly things they've done in the woods?

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Retirement: Social media vs. reality

 I've been retired almost three months, and if you were to peruse my Facebook account, you might think all I do is hike all day, every day, and that every day is pretty perfect. But that would be wrong. 

Here is a pretty picture of a lake I hiked to recently:

What you don't see: the first mile and a half was as icy as a skating rink. I slid even with spikes on. I giggled inwardly as I caught up to and passed some young guys in their 20s, but then double timed it to stay ahead of them. I carried my snowshoes nine miles and didn't need them. Not having eaten, I ate chocolate like a wild dingo at the lake and then discovered it was 500 calories. On the way back I heard a loud noise in the woods and yelled Hey Bear loudly as I slid down the trail.

Last week I didn't post much on Facebook. That's because I was crankily perched in front of my computer, completing a helicopter manager refresher in Microsoft Teams so that I can stay current and still go on fire assignments. The cats walked across the keyboard, attempting to send messages in the chat. My camera refused to turn off for awhile after I stopped talking (the horror!) A glitch locked me out of the meeting for an hour.  Meanwhile, it was sunny and in the 50s outside.

Other days, I wake up and don't feel like gathering all my cold weather gear and driving a long way to a trailhead. Hiking with friends is still logistically complicated; often we take separate cars due to covid, leaving cell service and hoping everyone will make it to the trailhead. Some days I just drag myself to the gym in the middle of the day, joining the ranks of people who seem too young to be retired, and either are remote workers or have trust funds. It's not very exciting, so gym pictures rarely make the cut. 

When I was still working, I fiercely envied retired people. I imagined their lives to be carefree. Time, I thought, would slow down. Well, nope. It's great not to be working, but there are still plenty of bills to pay. Days seem to hurtle by even faster than ever. And if you were considered an expert in your field, you are suddenly not relevant. It's a lot to process.

So, for every trail photo you see on social media, there are exciting nights devoted to reading books (Nomadland: read it) and eating cookies. It's not bad, but it's not perfect either. It's just life.

I hope my snowshoes enjoyed riding in my pack for 9 miles

Thursday, March 11, 2021

The season of indecision

 Here in the mountains, it's not really winter, but not quite spring. We're used to packing all sorts of things no matter the season (I've been snowed on in July and August, and seen 60 degrees in February), but this time of year is particularly difficult.

B. and I hesitated at the trailhead. Snowshoes or microspikes? The snow looked packed down at the start, but you never knew what it would be like fifteen hundred feet higher.  We strapped the snowshoes on our packs, pretty sure we wouldn't need them, but not willing to turn around or post hole. I once carried snowshoes up a trail 5 miles and 5000 feet in elevation gain, only to not need them and carry them all the way back down. On the other hand, I've followed tracks where someone, snowshoe-less, had miserably fallen in for miles.

Ski pants or leggings? Take the hand warmers or not? Bear spray? Just kidding, always bear spray. As we hike up the hills, we take off layers, switch out wool hats for baseball caps, remove gloves; then when we arrive at the frozen lake, put it all back on. The sun peeks out from behind a cloud and we get warm again, then the wind blows across the ice and we shiver. 

Most people I know just take it all. Rain jacket, even though it's not supposed to snow at all, because then it probably will. Trekking poles, on trails where they're not needed in summer, because of ice. Matches, even on a 4 mile trail, because there are so many stories about hikers lost in blizzards. Both gloves and mittens, because cold hands are the worst. And snowshoes, even though, as I suspected, we carried them all the way to the lake and back. Once there, though, we spotted the lone hiker ahead of us, and saw that he had done the same thing.

Even with all the layering and unlayering, superfluous gear, and uncertainty, I love hiking this time of year. The mountains are covered in snow, there are less people and bears around, and there is a hint of warmth in the wind. Spring isn't here, but it's right around the corner.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

wandering in the fire lookout graveyard

 Anyone who has been reading here for awhile knows that I really like, ok might be a little obsessed with, fire lookouts. There's something about these historic buildings, very few of them staffed anymore, standing abandoned on lonely mountains, that makes me want to spend time there. I've even gotten to stay overnight in a few of them, and have filled in for the regular lookout people on their days off.  If a fire lookout is on a hiking trail, I always want to go there.

Sadly, many of these old buildings have fallen down or been removed over the years. Hiking to a former lookout site isn't quite as fun, but it's still interesting. There are hundreds of these sites in my local mountains. In the lookout heyday, people stationed throughout the forest would have been able to see the lights of their fellow lookouts in the distance, and share recipes on a phone line strung for miles on the trees.

Looking around, we can usually find traces of the towers and cabins that once graced the tops of the peaks. Concrete footings, nails, and pieces of glass are common, as are old, rusted cans and outhouse pits. On a couple of mountains I've found old bedframes, too unwieldly or remote to have been carried down. Old trails that led to water springs or other routes off the hills can still be found. It's easy to imagine the solitary man or woman who once lived up here, carrying drinking water and chopping firewood, stopping to gaze at the horizon to look for smoke.

Old bed frames at a former lookout site

Long after the buildings have fallen down and the trails fade into obscurity, the spectacular views still remain. Visiting enough of these sites, you can usually find where the lookout once stood by assessing the terrain. I wish all the lookouts were still there, but I know that's impossible, with harsh winter weather and lack of funding for upkeep. When I go there, I can still dream of what it must have been like to stay up here, in a little house in the sky.

There once was a fire lookout here. It must have been really terrible to look at this view every day.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

new chapters

 I saw one of the firefighters at the gym. "I thought you went to South Carolina," he said, referring to a group of people who had gone south for prescribed burning. "No, I retired!" I said. "That's even better!" he answered.

It's been less than two months since I took early retirement, but already I feel the world of fire slipping away. I rarely talk to former employees; they are busily making decisions about my program that I used to make. I don't hear work gossip. I'm invited to a meeting, but wouldn't get paid if I attended, although there are methods and money to do so. I attempt to call to keep my access to a financial system that I'll need to use, and it's obvious that nobody has much of an interest in helping a retiree. I'm a has-been, a "former firefighter."

I was curious about what this would be like. After being a firefighter for 33 years, I wondered if I would feel a little lost to lose that part of my identity. This happens to a lot of people. They flounder, wondering who exactly they are and what their purpose is, after devoting so much time and energy to the job and giving up so much in the process.

I'm discovering I'm not one of those people. I have wonderful memories of my adventurous career, but I don't miss it that much. If I never get in a helicopter again, I'm all right with that. If I only see smoke from a distance, that's fine too. I'll never forget the places I got to see and the people I shared it all with, but it's time for new adventures.

 Although being a wildland firefighter was a large part of my life, I always knew I was more than that. I loved my job, but I was always happy to have time off. There were so many other things I wanted to do. I liked my crews, but I had good friends outside of fire to spend time with, a small but mighty support system. Fire was only one of the things I did.

I'll always look up when a helicopter flies over, and I'll wonder about a smoke column in the distance. I'll always treasure my time out in the forest, saving trees, houses, and sometimes lives. But after a short pause, I'll continue on down the trail, looking out for whatever is around the next turn.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

In praise of the non-alpine start

 I dreaded it on my mountaineering trips: the rustling sounds, the tent zippers coming open, people stomping around, usually at midnight or 1 a.m. It was usually bitterly cold, and nobody felt like eating, but we had to. If you hadn't had the foresight to put anything that might freeze overnight into your sleeping bag, you'd be sorry, even if it meant being crowded in with boot liners, water bottles, batteries, headlamps and cameras. 

The alpine start is necessary if you have a long way to go and if you want to be headed down before snow conditions change, falling rock and ice danger mounts because of warming temperatures, or darkness falls. I never liked it though. At 19,000 feet on a Himalayan peak, I tossed and turned, checking the time compulsively, while my tentmate Lesley snored away contentedly. I knew we would have to get up soon and this made sleep impossible.

In the summer, starting out early to hike is easy. It's warm and the sun is up. You want to avoid any tourist hordes. Winter is harder. Lately the temperatures have been below zero for the highs. The roads are icy. Luckily, I have some hiking buddies who like to adjust start times in the winter. Maybe they went out the night before and need a more relaxing morning, or they walk their dogs or shovel their driveways. We often meet at 10 or later, if the trailhead is close.

In past years I might have called myself lazy to get going that late. I've discovered though that there are some benefits to it. Obviously, it's warmer. Around here in the winter, the sun sometimes hides in the clouds and there is an inversion until later in the day. Many times I've arrived back at the trailhead to see the sun just breaking out, probably brilliantly illuminating the frigid peak or lake I tagged and raced away from to avoid hypothermia. Also, delaying the start time sometimes means a group of snowshoers has packed down the trail; thanks guys! Too, I have some hiking friends who just can't get going earlier. I wouldn't want to miss out on being with them.

The non-alpine start is especially possible this time of year as the days get longer. Starting at noon, we can still cover 10 miles and be at the car by dusk. And we can see the sunset!

Don't get me wrong, sunrises are great and it's nice to be out on the trail early, especially in the summer. But if my friends want to meet at 10 I'll be there for it. And if I see you out there at the trailhead at noon I won't be like the acquaintance I ran into while snowshoeing in the park. "You're just heading out now?" she asked judgmentally. "The snow's going to be really soft!" Instead, I'll say hi and probably feel envious that you're going to be hiking in the sunshine the whole way.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

The local life

 One thing that kept me going through all the years of overtime, employee supervision, and having no real summers for over 30 years was the thought of retirement. When I retire, I thought, I'm going to do ALL THE TRAVEL. No longer would I be limited to the southern hemisphere because the only time I had free was in the winter. Now I could travel in the spring and summer! Norway, Greenland, Switzerland, here I come! 

Um, no. I can't plan anything, due to the virus. It's iffy if other countries will let us in by the summer, and the vaccination is a long ways off for me, due to not being in any high risk groups. I know people who are happily going to Mexico and other tropical destinations right now, but personally I just don't feel right about that yet. I'm even hesitant to plan road trips right now, although I could probably stay pretty distant from others. So, staying local it is.

I knew vaguely of a lake only a few miles from my house, but for some reason I had never visited it. One day while hiking, B. mentioned that she had skied on it. My ears perked up. Most of our winter so far has been mild, so many lakes hadn't frozen over. I looked up the ice fishing report. Eight inches of ice, that could hold a snowmobile! I packed up my microspikes and headed over.

There were only a couple of people on the lake. They were ice fishing, with varied degrees of seriousness. I started hiking around the perimeter on the ice. It was quiet. A few snow flurries came and went, temporarily obscuring the mountains. The lake was three miles around; I walked a couple of laps. 

It's not Iceland or even Sedona, but it'll do for now. I don't know when, if ever, I would have gone to this lake, but now I plan to take my kayak there in the summer. If I can't travel this summer, there are a couple of backpacking trips I want to take; one is to a backcountry lake I saw once from the air, that will require a packraft and a few miles of bushwhacking. For now, I'll be happy with what I have.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

The Representative

 The hotshot crew raved about our employee Gary (not his real name; apologies to Garys everywhere), when we sent him with them on a fire assignment. "He's a really hard worker, and doesn't talk much," they said. "And he has a great attitude!"

We considered this. Hard worker? Yes. Doesn't talk much? Debatable. Great attitude? We snickered. Not so much.

Gary went about his day with a permanent chip on his shoulder, often taking it out on us. Somehow we were the reason he wasn't getting ahead in his career, not his inability to get along with others or his negative mutterings about pretty much everything. How could the hotshots not have seen this, we wondered.

Then it dawned on me. They hadn't met Gary, not really. They had met his representative.

Everyone has a representative. The representative is who shows up at the beginning of a new job, a new relationship, or a new social setting. It's sometimes called "putting your best foot forward." Social media is full of people's representatives: only the good photos, and the most interesting situations, make the cut. 

Most people can't keep it going for very long in person. We had met Gary's representative briefly when we hired him; however he soon relapsed into his real self. His representative was very different from the reality.

A representative can be a good thing. Mine has gotten me through some social situations that I dreaded, assisted me with public speaking, and gained me some hiking partners I might not have gotten otherwise. I've learned a lot from my representative: I feel that she has many qualities I strive for. In the end, though, your representative just gets you a foot in the door. It's up to you to keep walking through it as the real, genuine, complex person that you are.

This beach in Hawaii is called Shark Bay; even my representative wouldn't swim at a beach with that name!