Thursday, July 20, 2017

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

View from the front seat

This is why I stopped moving up, even though many of my former coworkers and even those I trained when they were rookies have gone past me as they climbed the ladder.

This is why I still come to work.


 I could have a nice office.  I could have a higher base salary.  I could have the respect accorded those who have achieved a higher pay grade.  But then I wouldn't have days like today, flying through the mountains in a helicopter to look for fires, looking at lakes still frozen in high alpine cirques and lonely green valleys.

It was the right choice.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Thoughts from a sky house

Whenever I arrive at a fire lookout, I'm momentarily seized by the thought that I need to be doing something.  I rush around, unpacking my backpack, sweeping the floor, checking the firefinder to make sure I still know how to use it.  This usually lasts for awhile, until I realize that I have plenty of time.  That the job of a fire lookout is just to be there.

Current and former lookouts will know this is somewhat of a misleading statement.  There's plenty of work to do at a lookout, if you are the regular occupant.  Many of the buildings are historic, so require a lot of upkeep: painting, roof work, stove maintenance.  There's always trail work, and then daily life chores: hauling water, cleaning, cooking.
Everything you need.
 But if you're a transient lookout like me,  especially if only up for one night like I was recently, starting a project isn't necessary.  And eventually I stop trying to keep busy.  I drag a chair out onto the catwalk, bringing binoculars and a book.

I watch the sun move across the peaks.  It won't set until almost 10.  I can see the trailhead seven miles and nearly 3000 vertical feet below.  Boats crisscross the lake, carrying people out camping for the extended Fourth of July weekend.  Mountain goats cling to the rocks above.  I look for bears in Silver Basin, but don't see any.
There were mountain goats up there
I go to sleep when it's dark.  I can't see any lights, not even a campfire.  In the morning as I pack up, I hear a noise under the tower.  I think bear, but when I go to look, it is an industrious marmot, chewing on something, fat and content.

Lookout time is different than city time.  Up here, time seems to move more slowly, but the hours aren't filled with busy, often meaningless activity.  Standing on the catwalk and looking out at the mountains is a kind of meditation. As I descend toward civilization, I carry the quiet and serenity with me.
The beargrass this year! It's amazing.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

hanging around

"Why aren't you on a fire?" someone asks.  It might be simple curiosity, but coming from a person who is always trying to get out on assignment, it sounds a bit judgey.  After all, I could be on one. 

There are a lot of firefighters who make themselves available as soon as the first wisp of smoke appears anywhere in the country.  Some will put themselves ahead of their seasonal, broke employees and flee first, leaving others to pick up their responsibilities.  They get away with this, because after all, firefighting is our primary job, although most of us realize that the administrative and teaching part of our positions have mushroomed almost out of control.

After 30 years of doing this, I'm not in a hurry to rush out the door.  It's a slow season, after all: despite a few large fires making the news, there's not much going on, and a lot of resources are available.  And then there's this:

  On Friday I met up with some new hiking friends and drove to the east side of the national park.  We hiked along a lake and to a series of waterfalls.
A fire from two years ago had burned through part of the area.  While there were lots of burned trees, the fire had also opened up the forest, and its floor was covered with wildflowers.
I'm not in a hurry to get out on the road.  The fires will come, but if they don't, I know how to live within my means without the additional income.  For now, I'm content to just be here.  I'm not missing out on anything.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Girl Pants

I nervously approached the fire cache on my first day on a hotshot crew in 1992.  Burly men rushed around handing out gear to us rookies: bright yellow fire resistant shirts, sleeping bags, backpacks.  Although I had fought fire for a few years, this was a new level. 

"Can I have some old style pants?" I asked.  Mark the squad boss paused and sized me up, before rummaging through a pile of green pants to find my size.  Months later he approached me to say, "When you asked for old style pants, I knew you were all right."

"Old style pants" were seemingly modeled on 1980s dress pants: wide legged, with slash pockets in front, they had no place for storage, requiring the occupant to carry pens, small notebooks, and other items in an infernally uncomfortable harness around the chest widely referred to as a "radio bra" because it also housed a two way radio.  They were not fashionable pants, but they were comfortable, and far better than what was replacing them at the time: the infamous "jean style."
It's hard to tell, but I'm wearing the old style pants here.
I have no pictures of the jeans, because I held onto my threadbare old style pants as long as possible.  The jeans were based on a man's body, with legs that constricted while climbing over logs and brush in the woods.  They were widely disliked.  Still, some people in recent years have tried to bring them back.  On one of my crews they were called "discos," as in, "Tom is rocking the discos today."

Some well-intentioned soul designed a women's version of these jeans.  A true high rise mom jean, they either gapped in the waist and grabbed the hips like a boa constrictor, or vice versa.  Most women avoided these and resigned themselves to the men's pants.

Cargo pants were the next to appear. Smokejumpers, known for their sewing ability, tinkered with them, coming up with Kevlar and other versions. I grabbed a prototype pair and never looked back.  These pants, while still designed for men, fit loosely and had tons of pockets, so the dorky radio bra could be abandoned.  They still had issues: being built for a man, the pants sagged, chafed women's legs, and were usually too long.  But they were better than anything else we had tried.
Cargo pants, 1997
Two years ago, a female engine foreman approached me.  "I bought some girl pants!" she exclaimed. "I can help you get some too."

A private company had developed cargo pants for women.  Low rise, they fit comfortably and true to size, unlike some "vanity size" pants (Prana, I'm looking at you: while flattering, there is no way I should be a size 2).  But there was a problem.  Because there was a single source we were supposed to buy from, these pants were off limits for us.  She had found a loophole, though.

In order to buy them, she had to create a "job hazard analysis," basically outlining the problems with men's pants: the chafing, uncomfortable seams, sagging.  In 2017, it seems ridiculous to have to do this to get pants that fit women.  But it was what we had to do, and in the end, we had our "girl pants."

Since it's a hassle to get them, we guard them carefully. Project work? Barbed wire in the area? Throw on the cargos.  Handing them out to crew members? Make sure they give them back at the end of the season.  It's a sign of progress, though, finally.  Yay for girl pants!
Picture from here




Friday, June 9, 2017

(Yet Another) Trail Report

What to do when it's supposed to rain, but you just have to get out? Hit the trail, of course!

On Sunday I met my group of trusty millennials.  It was almost two, not exactly an alpine start, but one of them had to work, and it stays light until almost 10 anyway.  We piled into an old jeep and headed south.

The weather forecast called for a 50% chance of rain and thunderstorms, with high winds.  We went anyway.  Instead it was sunny and 80 degrees.  Everyone else was coming down as we headed up, a bonus of starting late.

The forest opened up into a bowl filled with a subalpine lake, still mostly frozen in this first week of June.  We roamed around on snow still so deep that we were looking down at the trail signs.  Below, the bear grass was just starting to bloom. 

Strawberry Lake.  Some people were (trying to) fish.
 
The trail from here is still under deep snow.
For most of my hiking companions, this was their last hike before they headed out to fires in the Southwest, although they didn't know it then.  I'll stay a little longer, which doesn't bother me.  Look at this place. It's so hard to leave. 


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Be the Anomaly

I'm a woman who has fought fire for thirty years.  Unlike most of the females I started out with, I didn't quit to do something else or raise a family.  I didn't move into upper management or into a job that, while still fire-related, would have allowed me to choose whether I wanted to be on the fireline or not.  I still work in a position where I'm expected to respond to fires and other emergencies at a moment's notice.  There are plenty of men who have done this; they retire with accolades and maybe a nice painting or a shiny Pulaski tool mounted in a frame.

There aren't very many women, though, and there will be less still, as fewer and fewer apply to firefighting jobs.  Because of this I am somewhat of an anomaly.  But this isn't the only reason.

A text out of the blue from someone I used to know caused me to think about how we see ourselves.  There is what we know about ourselves and other people also know, explained a fire management officer in Alabama this spring in a moment of reflection.  Then there is what we know about ourselves and nobody else knows.  The last part is what other people know about us but we don't know; the Jahari window.

But what if what we think we know about ourselves is wrong?

So many of us see ourselves through a warped mirror.  We are at times unattractive, boring, socially awkward.  Too fat or too thin.  We don't exercise enough.  We are bad supervisors or parents.  We are unlovable.

This kind of thinking caused me to join the other young women in college who barely ate and ran miles and miles along the lakeshore every day.  It kept me in a bad marriage for too long and then caused me to choose the wrong people, the ones who lied and secretly loved others and then left.

But it wasn't the truth, and it's not your truth either.  You are someone's unicorn, even if you haven't met them yet.  You're an anomaly too.  Believe it.


 





Monday, May 29, 2017

We're all the same on the trail

Generation X and Baby Boomers complain about millennials.  They're entitled.  They're always on their devices.  Millennials complain about Gen X/Baby Boomers.  They're out of touch.  They left the younger generations with a mess.  You hear both sides a lot.

This weekend I got to hike with both generations.  On Saturday, I met up with some women in my hiking group.  I hadn't ever met them, but most of them turned out to be around my age.  We laughed and talked all the way to an unmanned fire lookout in the park.  It didn't hurt that it seemed to be Hot Guy Hiking Day...each one coming down the trail was cuter than the next, culminating in one we called "Captain America," who strode around the peak with perfect hair and a movie star face.
"Captain America" is not in this picture, so stop looking.
On Monday, I joined a group of millennials for a hike to another lookout.  Some were my employees, and may or may not have been apprehensive to hike with "the boss." Still, we hiked along companionably, abandoning the trail in deep snow and heading straight up, picking up two young women on the way who had turned around after seeing bear tracks, convincing them to come with us.

Each group was at different stages in their lives.  The first group talked about their kids and places they had traveled.  The second group, young enough to be my kids, talked about places they wanted to go and jobs they wanted to get.  Despite that, they were similar where it counted.  We were all amazed by the mountains.  We all watched out for each other on the trail.  We talked and laughed and told stories.  We wondered about peak names and flowers.  We were all happy to be out on the trail.

We really aren't so different.  Maybe we just need to go hiking together more.

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.