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.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

still out here

I chose this.  I set my feet on this road years ago and I followed it although in many ways it almost broke me. 

It would have been easier to quit, some days; to stop waking up before dawn in a cold fire camp, then later burning from the sun on a high mountain ridge.  I had so many opportunities to take another way, to move into a higher level job, or to change careers entirely.  I could have done it, but something held me back. 

"I should never have gotten out of the left front seat," B. said, referring to the job he had on the helicopter, the one I still have.  Going into a management position, he fought against the bureaucracy and his own demons.  He was found in a hotel room far from home dead by his own hand; I can only imagine the dark cloud that he lived inside during his final days.  Maybe staying out on the fireline would have saved him; nobody will ever know.

A lot of my fire brothers are still out here.  We run across each other on fires all over the west, or I'll get a call from one of them out of the blue.  Most of them still love it; some are just putting their time in until they can retire.  But most of my sisters are gone, the ones who started when I did, back in 1988 when Yellowstone, and everywhere else it seemed, was on fire.

Many of them quit to have families, or to do something else.  Firefighting was just a sideline for them, a stepping stone until their real lives started.  Some stayed close to it, but they moved into administrative positions, to dispatch, or went out on assignments a couple times a year on a break from their regular jobs.  Very few of them are still out there on the fireline with me.

I'm still out here.  I walk the line with people young enough to be the children I never had.  Some of my best and my worst moments have been out here.  A helicopter crash on a bright autumn day, and the exhilaration of survival.  Running through flames to escape the freight train sound of death coming over the ridge.  A man who smiled at me as we stepped off a mountain to let the fire go by.  All the faces of the people who didn't make it through the fire or the accidents or the black thoughts they held inside.  Houses I helped save and ones I couldn't and watched burn into ashes in the dark night.  Fiery sunsets from a wilderness camp and big starry skies.

Sometimes it's lonely out here.  I love my fire brothers but they don't get it, what it's like to be a woman still doing this after 29 years.  Their wives and their girlfriends are very different from me; they are who I might have been if I hadn't chosen this path.

Still.  Every summer I pick up a pulaski and I walk the fireline.  I lean out of helicopters spreading fire from the sky and searching for hidden smoke.  I still do it.  I'm still here.

Baker River Hotshots, 1992

Wyoming, 2012

Monday, August 1, 2016

Gum, Attack Trees, and Ice Cream

"There's probably 60 trees across the trail," my source at the park said optimistically.  We already knew we had to ford a river and a creek and gain a lot of elevation, in an area frequented by bears.  But really, how bad could it be? We decided to go. It would be an adventure!

We parked in an unmarked pullout by the railroad tracks, obediently looking both ways as we scampered across.  Eventually after a little wandering we found a good place to cross the river.  Earlier in the year it runs too high and the lookout gets a ride across in a raft; it was only about knee deep now.
S. is  a lot taller than me, but it wasn't very deep.
Unwisely leaving our river sandals on, we immediately plunged into dense brush.  We couldn't see our feet, but we seemed to be on something of a trail.  "Hey bear," we yelled; bears could have been two feet away and we wouldn't see them.  Large trees lay across the "trail," requiring creative climbing techniques.  Suddenly, I sensed disaster.  The plug in my Camelbak hose had disappeared into the brush. Unless I held the bite valve upright, water spilled out, and I couldn't drink from it.

J. eyed the problem and produced the solution, giving me a piece of gum. The gum blocked the hole and saved me from begging water from others, dehydration, or possible giardia from desperate stream drinking.  Of course, all the water I drank from then on tasted strongly of Trident, but water beggars can't be choosers.  We continued on to our next obstacle, a creek crossing.

Clambering up the steep bank, we started climbing steeply.  Shouts of "Hey Bear" and "Hey Kitty" (after we spied mountain lion scat) rang through the woods.  As the brush thinned out, the fallen trees increased.  An intent bear could have followed our progress by the cries of "Ow! ow!" as branches and twigs did their best to stab, puncture, and scrape us. I skulked along, as this hike had been my idea.

It was beautiful though.

Finally we rounded the last corner and saw the lookout.

My hiking companions are on the catwalk.  We saw two other people on the trail.  It's not well used.

Disappointingly, the person staffing this post was gone on days off.  Since S. had hauled up ice cream bars packed in dry ice for the lookout, we became the lucky recipients.

All the hard work of getting there was worth it.

We started counting the fallen trees on the way down.  You'd think we'd be more graceful on the way down, having already crossed them once.  You'd be wrong.  One hundred ninety-five trees later, we arrived back at the river.  Back in the brush, S. shrieked behind us.  Thinking she had seen a bear, we all jumped, only to find her holding something up.  "I found it!" she yelled.  Somehow she had spotted my missing Camelbak plug.

Back at the car, we assessed the situation.  J. thoughtfully remarked that nobody broke any bones and we didn't, after all, lose anything. Although our legs looked like they had been clawed by bears, we were happy.  We had pulled off another adventure.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Tales of a Reluctant Road Warrior

When I took the fire assignment last month, I thought I knew what to expect.  After all, I'd been managing Type 1 (large) helicopters for years.  There's always some driving, but generally after awhile you settle in at a fire camp or airport, returning to a motel room or tent every night.  You get to know your surroundings: the "musical road" in Lancaster, California for example, or the trail down the road from the airstrip in Dixie, Idaho.  Life is somewhat predictable, at least for awhile.

This assignment was different.  Like a restless bird, the helicopter never stayed in one place more than two days.  I drove to airports in New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana.  I drove almost 4000 miles; as soon as I arrived someplace, it would be time to leave for another.  Entire days went by when I didn't see the pilots.

Early on I realized I needed a routine, even if I had to drive 500 miles that day.  And as I crisscrossed the West, one developed, as weird as it sometimes was:

Wake up at 5 am and stuff my gear into the Ford Escape.  There's a place for everything: my workout clothes, easily accessible snacks, even the big bag of trail mix T. left for me when he finished his stint with the helicopter (stuffed way in the back, so I wouldn't mindlessly eat it). Program the final destination into Gretchen the GPS.  Blearily hit the road.

Stop only when the need for gas and a bathroom arise (hopefully, at the same time).  Buy an energy drink, although they really don't work.  Tell self, don't buy Cheeze-Its. Buy Cheeze-Its.

Break no stopping rule when a particularly beautiful lake appears.  Look longingly at turnoffs for places like the Grand Canyon.  Look at GPS. It still shows 7 hours to go.  Pilot texts that he has arrived at the destination (it only took them 3 hours).
Why wouldn't you stop here?
Try not to be annoyed at other drivers.  Fail.  Fiddle with the radio.  Of course there's no Sirius, so the choices are country, religious, or "top hits." Settle for "top hits." Find yourself singing loudly, "Somethin' bout you makes me feel like a DAAAAANGEROUS WOOOOMAN." Feel slightly horrified; at least you don't have a trainee along.

Arrive at your destination, or, failing that, somewhere ten hours into the journey (all that you are supposed to drive in one day).  Search for a Holiday Inn Express to get the points.  Sometimes settle for something else (The "Retro Inn" comes to mind, although it really was ok). Although it's usually about 9 pm, go to the fitness room and exercise.  Look at Cheeze-Its in disgust; eat a salad. Do paperwork till about 11.

Finally catch up with the pilots the next day; having had lots of rest, they look pretty chipper.  After a couple of hours, get a call from Dispatch. You're headed somewhere else.

This is a strange job.  Sometimes you sit around, sometimes you dig in the dirt.  And sometimes you drive all day.  It's never really the same.  Maybe that's why we keep doing it.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Short Break From Fire

It's really, really green here, very different from last year. It's been raining off and on, and snow patches still linger in the high country. I've been back for a week now and I feel restless.  What to do? Get outside, of course!

On Friday, I drove to a local bridge and dragged my kayak down a steep trail to the river.  This is my favorite section of the river because I never see anyone on it, and there are only a few houses along it.

I had to maneuver around some kayak eating logs.

I like to go against the current on the way up and float back down.

Saturday was rainy but an impressive hailstorm made an appearance.

Sunday was a hiking day.
This lake is called Crater Lake (not the one in Oregon).

So many glacier lilies!
Otherwise, not much to report! I hope everyone is getting out and enjoying summer.