Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A firefighter in winter

I have to admit, it's sort of an oxymoron, unless you live in a southern state where they have some winter fires, or do prescribed burning.  "Must be pretty slow right now," people say cheerily; this is usually coupled with, "what do you DO in the winter, anyway?"

Here's what I do in the winter.  I try not to think about fires or firefighting.  If any wildland firefighters say they miss it in the winter, they aren't busy enough in the summer or haven't been doing it that long.

No longer tied to a base with a 5 minute getaway time, I can exercise where and when I want. I run without carrying a phone. I reacquaint myself with my gym.  I go snowshoeing in a local forest.

No more shapeless, unattractive fire clothes! I wear dresses and skirts and boots. I spend time with people who don't work for me.
I may or may not have bought some new boots.
 
I watch snowstorms instead of thunderstorms.

I bake stuff! These are chocolate peanut butter cupcakes. Yum!

 I actually have time to get my hair cut.

 Fire season will be back in 6 months, but there's no hurry. Right now it's time for the forest (and us) to take a rest.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

We'll Stand By You

I don't normally promote things on my blog, so feel free to pass this post by, and this blog will return to normal programming soon. 

I know a lot of firefighters lurk here, even though they never comment.  One of our brothers in fire was seriously hurt in a snowmobile accident at work.  He is currently in a rehab hospital out of state with no feeling from the arms down. 

There is a gofundme site set up to help his family with the expenses of traveling to see him, staying away from home, and other costs.  So far firefighters, his wife's co-workers, friends and friends of friends have rallied together to contribute a large amount in a short period of time.  I'm proud and honored to be part of this community that takes care of one of our own.
Luke and his family
Here is the link: https://www.gofundme.com/stacystrength

Sometimes life is difficult, but when things like this happen it reminds me to be grateful for all I have.

Happy holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Hanukkah, and happy Festivus! Thanks for reading this little blog.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The treadmill makes me sick

I have a treadmill problem.  Besides hating it, that is.  More often than not, if I am forced to run on that machine of boredom, I feel really nauseated afterwards; sometimes I've had to leave the gym because of this.  I suppose this is some sort of inner ear problem, but I prefer not to delve too deeply;  I'd rather run anywhere else than on the dreadmill.

I peered out the window this morning.  It had snowed the day before, but surely the enthusiastic neighborhood dog walkers had packed down the nearby trails.  The other option was the road, which I dislike almost as much as the treadmill.  So I put on ice spikes and headed out.

As I entered the woods I could tell it was going to be a challenge.  A few people had walked the trails, but they had only churned up the four new inches of snow.  My second clue was the cross country skier I ran into.  She looked at me quizzically; what was a runner doing out here if there was enough snow to ski on? I was wondering also, but I slogged on.

Because here's the thing.  Not only was I avoiding the gym, but there was something else that kept me from turning around.  A few days ago, a young co-worker was injured in a snowmobile accident at work.  Although we have friends in common, we are only acquaintances; we see each other often at the office and on the fireline, and he always has a friendly word for me.  Now he is in the hospital and he can't feel his legs. 

Running today was difficult.  I stumbled through the snow and footprints, feeling like I was running in slow motion.  But I kept thinking, he can't do this. He might never be able to do this again.  And I kept going.


Sunday, December 13, 2015

December? Is that you?


If you went outside not knowing what month it was, would you choose correctly?

I would pick April.  Temperatures near 40, rain, hardly any snow on the running trails? Hello, spring...um...winter?

Yes, I have a ski pass, but this weather is ok with me.  I know it can change at any time; a polar vortex could come barreling down on us next week.  I'll keep on trail running and hiking as long as I can.

And what does this mean for next fire season? It's too soon to tell.  We've had raging fires after winters with record snowfall, and hardly any after dry winters.  That being said, there was a 2000 acre wildfire east of here a few days ago.  In DECEMBER.  Is it really December?





Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Reaping, aka Application Season

This is the time of year that both aspiring and veteran wildland firefighters are hunched over computers, typing furiously on job applications.  I haven't applied for a job in awhile, but I remember the feeling:  what's a synonym for motivated? is this exaggerating too much? ok, what did I actually DO last summer?
If you don't know this website, rookie, you soon will.
The open period for the permanent jobs has closed and the temporary ones are not yet open.  The permanent job applications will be evaluated at an event called Fire Hire, which is sort of like a Hunger Games of employment, without, you know, the deaths and stuff.  The tributes, I mean applicants, will be rated on a number of factors and then fight it out be interviewed.  Only the strong (or at least the well-spoken) will survive.
"My greatest weakness? Um..."
The people who applied in December won't know till February if they get jobs.  While I'm somewhat sympathetic, I still remember how arduous the process was in the old days.  While today's applicants have the benefit of an online system where they can instantly upload documents and click on the answers to questions, we used to have to fill out a form.  A paper form.  On a typewriter, with white-out if you made a mistake.  There was also the lovely bubble form for which you needed a #2 pencil.  You never got to talk to the hiring official; there was no way to search for his or her name.  You mailed everything in, and you might get a letter in the mail saying you didn't get the job, or you might not.  There weren't that many jobs open then that you could actually apply for unless you had the coveted permanent status already, so if you made it through the process and landed a job you felt pretty good about yourself.  And grateful.
"Yes! We got jobs! Wait a minute...do you even know where Rawlins, Wyoming is?"
When applicants call me, I give them tips, kind of like Haymitch gave Katniss and Peta tips for the arena, without the alcohol of course.  Sometimes I spend 20 minutes on the phone with a stranger, because back then, nobody helped me. I just figured it out on my own.  I would like to tell them to relax.  If you keep trying, keep getting good experience, and aren't picky about where you go, you'll get a job.  But until then, may the odds be ever in your favor.

"OK, rookie, ALWAYS spell check! Got it?"

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Opting Outside

There was a lot of chatter this year about Black Friday and stores being open/not open.  It didn't affect me much; I do most of my shopping online (although this can be dangerous and I definitely fell victim to the "that's cute, I want one too!" syndrome).  As a person who has to work a lot of holidays, I can usually be found somewhere far away from any festivities.  But I could get behind the #OptOutside trend.

I think this idea was started by REI, which decided to close their stores on Friday and urged their employees to do something outside instead.  Regardless of its origin, it was a good idea.  Not that I need any urging to opt outside (well, maybe when I lived in Fairbanks and it was -40F I did).

On Black Friday I met my friend B. at a local trailhead.  It was about 20 degrees and a light layer of snow covered the ground.  Her two fluffy dogs raced around, excited.  We walked and talked and then had lunch.  It was low key, but opting outside doesn't have to be an epic adventure every time. It can be just a simple walk with a friend, catching up.

I didn't take any pictures, but this was the trail a couple years ago, on a walk with the same friend and dogs. More snow then.
I can't think of a time when, after being outside, I was sorry about it.  Of course, sometimes DURING it, I had some regrets: the time I went running during a tornado watch, or when a grizzly bear huffed at me from some huckleberry bushes.  Afterwards though, there is usually something that made it worth it, at least a good story.

We shouldn't have hashtags and stores reminding us to go outside.  Let's just go!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

I heart trail crews

A winter storm was predicted for the next day, with snow and high winds. This could be the one that closed off the trails in the high country unless you had snowshoes or skis. What to do? Go for a hike, of course!

I drove north.  Although the trail I was headed for was fairly low elevation, there was snow already on the ground there.  The temperature was in the 30s. This trail is short and popular in the summer, but today nobody was parked at the trailhead.

I hiked uneventfully to the first lake.  It was starting to freeze over, with a thin glaze of ice on its surface.
Most people don't go to the second lake.  It's just as beautiful, but to get there you have to cross a large swamp.  There's no way to keep your feet dry, no matter the season.  I wasn't going to hike there, I thought.  But...I'd just hike down to the swamp and check it out.

This is what it usually looks like:
I was surprised to see this:
I scampered happily across the logs.  This was amazing!  The lake shimmered quietly in the sun.  I almost missed it!
Sometime this summer, a trail crew had been here.  They had undertaken the tedious task of falling large trees, bucking up the branches, dragging the heavy logs across the swamp, lining them up, and scoring them to create a less slippery surface.
Firefighters work hard; trail crews work harder.  The work is backbreaking, hiking for miles carrying heavy packs, cutting trees, digging trail tread, often camping out for days or even weeks. In wilderness areas they usually can't use power tools, having to remove large trees with crosscut saws and axes. Most people don't think about them as they cruise along on a well-maintained trail in a national park or forest; we only notice when a path is blocked or a sign is missing.  Parks and forests used to have large trail crews: because of declining budgets, these have dwindled to very few people.

 Next time you hike on a nice trail, take a moment to think about the dedicated men and women who built and maintained it.  Thanks trail crews!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Hello from the other side

I have a hot tub because of a broken promise.

I lent someone money once, a lot of money.  It was for our future, he said, a future where we would be together forever.  It turned out that forever for him didn't last that long, and he disappeared from my life, and into someone else's without a real explanation.

I didn't think I'd ever see that money again, but a year later I threw an email out into cyberspace. Surprisingly, it was answered, and the money came back to me.

What to do with it? The sensible answer would be to put it into a retirement account, or at least the bank.  But that didn't seem right.  This money represented an open heart, a leap of faith that turned into a free fall.  It was meant for something special.

I helped prepare a patch of ground, poured concrete, and stained wood for a fence.  My hot tub fit in the space I made for it like it was supposed to be there.

I love my hot tub.  I sit in it almost every day, except during fire season. It's especially magical when the temperature is below zero and snow is falling.

I don't believe everything happens for a reason.  Sometimes bad things just happen, and people do bad things, and there are bad people, too.  Most of us are not going to have Adele come along and sing that she is sorry she broke your heart; most of the time these people just go away and sometimes you don't find out why.

I hardly ever think of that person anymore: I am indifferent now.  It took me awhile to get here, but now I realize that I dodged a bullet, a serious one like the kind loaded into my .44, meant to take down a charging grizzly bear.  Looking around over here on the other side, my life is infinitely better than it was back then and than it would have been if he had stuck around.  And tonight the air is cold, the water is hot, and the northern lights are dancing across a sky that looks like a bowl of stars. 



Sunday, November 15, 2015

Late fall at Avalanche Lake

I don't know how many times I've hiked this trail.  I've been here at sunrise and sunset, in rain and snow, with friends and alone.  As a 22 year old park intern, I led nature walks here; the groups moved at a glacial pace, but once released at the lake, I could usually find a few children who wanted to run back down with me.

It's really too crowded to hike in the summer; it's only 2 miles to the lake so the hordes descend, with varying degrees of preparedness.  The off-season is the time to go; there are still some hikers, but not many.
The trail two years ago.  More snow then!
 My life has taken some twists and turns since I identified trees and flowers along this path to park visitors.  I'm sure the 22 year old me would be puzzled by some of my choices: living in one place for five years? buying a TV? but then again, some of her decisions seem crazy now:  over-exercising and obsessive calorie-counting, that spiral perm!  But the trail has stayed the same, and when it reaches the lake in a mountain cirque, it feels like I'm seeing it for the first time, every time.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Code W


When a ranger said "Code W" on the radio at the Grand Canyon, we employees all knew what it meant.  This stood for "Wimp," a person who was attempting to hike out of the canyon and was mired at one of the rest stops.  The wimp had no medical issues, but felt he or she could not continue.  After being plied with water and snacks and the encouragement of a ranger, these people could usually haul themselves, albeit slowly, out of the canyon without a helicopter rescue.

I stood uncertainly on the trail yesterday, wondering if I was having my own Code W moment.  It wasn't because of the snow that had fallen the night before, or the steepness of the trail.
Snow at the trailhead
  It was this:


 The big bear had marched up the center of the trail, probably only moments before.  My hiking companion and I continued along cautiously, yelling "Hey Bear."  At a curve in the path, we found very fresh tracks where the bear dove off the trail.

We paused.  Where was it?  Undoubtedly it had heard us and left the trail in a hurry.  Was it long gone, or just off the trail in the tangle of vegetation? Would it double back and regain the path behind us? Was it worth it to continue and wonder?  Why hadn't I invited more people along on the hike? Was it silly to turn around?

All of us who live in these mountains know about the bears.  Sometimes we see them like ghosts moving through the forest, but most of the time we just see the evidence of their passing.  We carry bear spray and most of the time we walk through the woods safely.  Still, I've been charged by a bear, and I've known people who have had terrifying encounters that left them scarred mentally and physically. 

We decided to leave the lake to the bears that day, and go to another lake that was drenched in sunshine.  Maybe we were "Code W", and maybe not.  At least the big bear probably had a peaceful walk through the snowy woods.  Maybe it stood on the shore of the lake and looked around, unafraid, not quite ready yet to hibernate for the long winter, just wanting to see it all one more time.
The lake we went to instead


Thursday, November 5, 2015

Back to the gym

I donate a lot of money to my gym in the summer months.  I don't think I made it there once between the middle of June and the beginning of October.  I could alleviate this problem by paying month to month instead of yearly and putting my membership on hold during the summer, but I have the superstitious feeling that once I did this, it would rain every day and we would have no fires.  Instead, I try to ignore the flurry of emails from my gym: "We know it's hard to stay motivated.  Here's a few tips to get back in the gym!"

When they're not digging fireline or hiking up and down hills, firefighters come up with innovative ways to keep in shape.  Hackysack circles flourished during the '90s; now this is seen as very retro and more people play Foursquare.  J. bought a Frisbee on our type 1 helicopter assignment; it was constantly getting lost in the tall grass, necessitating some calorie-burning searching.  Spontaneous ax-throwing competitions occasionally ensue, until a handle breaks or a crew boss appears to say knock it off.  If all else fails there is the card deck of pain: each card corresponds to a certain exercise such as pushups, and a certain number of reps.

The gym seems like a somewhat soulless place after a summer of running hills called Hamburger and Bloodsucker, dodging bears in the woods, and lifting rocks instead of dumbbells.  It gets the job done, but it's not the same as K. suddenly exclaiming, "Ab challenge!" and everyone joining in, even the pilot.  I'm glad I have the option of elliptical machines and barbells, but I really don't miss it when I'm gone.  There's something about pushups and lunges in an open field full of helicopters, watching a smoke column rise in the distance.  A room full of sweaty strangers running to nowhere will never match up to that.
Homemade pullup bar on a fire in Alaska

Friday, October 30, 2015

Late season hike

Sometimes it seems everyone hunts where I live.  Meetings are scheduled to avoid hunting season; people grumble if they have to attend a training class during that time.  Some hikers flee to the national park until the hunters vacate the woods.  But I wanted to take advantage of the unusually long autumn; I grabbed an orange hoody and headed for my favorite hiking area.

It was the second day of the rifle season, and hunters strolled the road wearing blaze orange and toting guns.  However, there were only a few hikers in the parking lot.   None of them wore orange, but I hurried past them, not about to be mistaken for an elk.

The trail I chose climbed quickly to a pass and into a basin studded with lakes.   There was about an inch of new snow.

I walked along a ridge above the clouds.  Nobody had come this way, except a few deer.


I ended up at Clayton Lake, a quiet, wild place.
I didn't see any other hikers or hunters in 13 miles.  Snow will settle in this basin soon, keeping out all but the most determined.  The deer and mountain goats will have the lakes to themselves.  Maybe I can sneak up here again before winter takes over.  If not, the trail will be here next summer, waiting.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

An Accidental Traveler

The most common question I get this time of year from people who don't know me well is, "Sooo...where are you going this year?"  I've somehow acquired a globe trotting reputation, which I don't think is quite deserved; I didn't travel out of the country between 2007 and 2012, for example.  They seem really invested in the answer.  Probably disappointingly, I usually say, "I don't know!"

And I usually don't.  This year, an unexpected new furnace has cost as much as a trip to say, Bhutan, and a plethora of work meetings and commitments litter my calendar, coupled with a late fire season.  But even in normal years, I usually don't plan too far ahead.  On the ship to Antarctica, I discovered that many people had been planning this trip for years, and bought their tickets a year in advance.  On the other hand, I bought mine a month before I went (and paid half price: sorry/not sorry).  In fact, most of my trips have been, well, sort of accidental.
Antarctic peninsula
Not that I somehow stumbled upon a free ticket (how great would that be?) but instead, most of my travel ideas have originated from a night in front of the computer thinking, I need to get out of here. Where should I go?  which turned into, That Facebook friend's photos of Patagonia are really beautiful.  Maybe I should go there.  Let's check Orbitz.  Three weeks from now? Sure!
Beautiful Patagonia.  Go!!!
My job takes the summers away, but it gives me the winters.  I probably wouldn't have been to half the places I've been if I had a "normal" job.  I would have stayed closer, but that's not really possible.  Climbing Mt. Rainier, hiking the PCT, touring National Parks, are all pretty much out for me.  So I  chose Tanzania, Argentina, Nepal, Ecuador, and all the other unforgettable places I've seen.  And all are basically chosen at the last minute, based on a picture, a book, or another traveler's story.
I loved Nepal
What's next? I may disappoint the vicarious travelers who quiz me about my wanderings (see furnace, above).  But you never know.  Excuse me while I check the weather in Santorini....

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Transitions

"The helicopter is going to be released at end of shift," I text my minion.  His response is swift: "Happy dance!" he replies.

It's not that we don't like the helicopter, our pilots, or our mechanics.  We love flying and seeing the country from the air.  But we're tired.  It's been almost non-stop for over months, this fire season, and it's not really over yet: there's still fires out there, and our type 1 helicopter got reactivated and sent to Texas.  Days off were few and far between.  I have more overtime than the local hotshot crew does. 
Still, we haven't had widespread rain.  The 80,000 acre fire on the forest, among others, still creeps around.  I wait for someone to say there's been a mistake, as the pilot departs for the last time from the helipad. But it appears that he will make it out of our airspace.  As he has been battling a flu-like illness for three weeks, he is undoubtedly relieved also.  Since we will have a new contract next year, we may not see him or this helicopter again.

Autumn blazes across the mountains.  Sometimes this transition is hard: going from working 10-16 hours a day, seven days a week, to a more normal schedule.  This year it's somewhat overwhelming.  I don't feel like doing much of anything for awhile.  But I do make it to the park before the road closes.
The "experts" are calling for another dry winter.  I gamble and buy a ski pass, because really, who knows.  We could be sitting in the rain staring glumly at the helicopter all next summer.

Change is in the air.  It's time to go out and meet it.
 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Lookout Diairies, Part Two

I wake in the middle of the night.  The tower is shaking.  The wind is attacking it with such ferocity that the door flies open.  I hear mysterious crashing noises as things get blown off the deck.  The clouds are spitting snow.  It has turned from autumn to winter in just a few hours.

Irrationally I imagine the tower collapsing in the storm, even though it has stood since 1963 and must ride out even more severe weather.  Still, I put on more layers of clothes in case I have to evacuate, and wait till morning.  The wind seems alive.  It is impossible to sleep.

The temperature in the cabin is in the 30s in the morning; it is colder outside.  I record weather observations, ducking back inside after each measurement: temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity.  The thermometer we use doesn't go below 30; we don't usually fight fire when it is that cold.  The wind meter only goes to 70 mph; the white ball that measures gusts disappears at the top of the scale.  I can't measure rainfall; the water has frozen in the bucket.

I start a fire in the woodstove.  There will be no fire watching today; visibility is about a half mile.  Curiosity drives me out of the tower; the trees are covered in white rime.  Nobody talks on the radio.  I ply the stove with wood, but it never really gets warm inside.  I feel like the only person in the world.
Rime on the trees
Around sunset, the wind dies down.  I escape the tower and run around, relieved.  The storm has passed, and the next day is bright and warm.  I hike the ridge and look at the fires.  I learn later that while the storm was battering the lookout, it was dead calm in the valley.

On the fourth day, I pack up.  I go down the stairs for the last time and start down the trail.  I take one last look at the little house on the mountain that sheltered me from the storm.  Then the trees hide it and I hike on, past the snow survey markers, across the benches and farther down, back to my life in the valley.
Last morning at the lookout


Friday, October 9, 2015

The Lookout Diaries, Part One

I stomp up the trail carrying 30 pounds in my backpack.  For some reason, I turned down a helicopter flight to hike instead.  For some reason, this trail always seems endless.  But I'm getting paid to do it, so I continue on, through the forest and past the "Tired?" sign that someone years ago nailed to a tree, through the snow survey area, to the false summit and then the final push to the fire lookout.

The regular lookout sits patiently by her full backpack, ready to flee down the trail for four days off.  She points out a few fires, then says tentatively, "please don't kill my grouse."  I look at her uncomprehendingly.  "The guys all want to kill them, and they've been up here since they were chicks," she explains.

After reassuring her that I would never kill her grouse, she bounds down the trail, and I'm left in silence.  I prowl the lookout, scanning the maps.  I gaze at the fires.  I make tea.  Finally I launch myself out of the building, restless, and hike up the next ridge.  I go to sleep when it gets dark, and wake up when the sun rises.
Sunset at the lookout
The next day is one of those fall days you hope for, crisp and clear and lovely.  I hike around and gather firewood, because it's in the 20s in the mornings.  Between looking at fires, I read books.  I talk to Dispatch twice a day on the radio; other than that, I see and speak to nobody.  I go to sleep under a bowl of stars.
One of the fires
I suddenly wake in the middle of the night.  Everything has changed....

TO BE CONTINUED....

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Back to the house in the sky

I just spent four magical days up here.

Getting paid to be up there, even.

I'm on assignment in Idaho now and will write more when I return.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Oh hello, Optimistic Wednesday

After spending all summer together, fire crews tend to get, well, kind of moody.  After all, we spend more time with these people during the season than with our real friends and families.  Add in a dose of sleepiness, sprinkle with someone's cold germs and stir, and you get a grumpy crew.

Before my assistant fled to a detail on one of the districts, he sensed these times looming.  After hearing some negativity, he declared that from now on Monday would be called "Positive Monday."  On Positive Monday, everyone had to share something good about the previous week (this also spawned The Word of the Day and The Russian Word of the Day).

Positive Monday caught on, and after he left, other days of the week were named as well.  There was Friendly Tuesday, and because we had so many visiting crews at our base, Hospitable Thursday.  Fantastic Friday and Super Saturday soon followed.  The uplifting theme wasn't always adhered to though: a Grumpy Sunday occurred, as well as a Blame It All On Jason Day.

However, having these names did cause people to stop and think before venting sometimes.  J,. who sometimes had the reputation of being negative, would stop people in their tracks when he heard some whining. "Remember, it's Positive Monday," he would lecture.  Disarmed by his unlikely positivity, the would-be complainer would usually start laughing and abandon their cause.

There were a few grumbles and hurt feelers this season, but no real meltdowns, and so far we still sort of like each other.  It's a good thing, because our helicopter is staying on later than expected, and there are still fires burning in the wilderness.  Smoke blew in this morning from somewhere to the west.  But being that it's Optimistic Wednesday, all I can say is, bring it on, fires, we are ready for you.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

the neverending fire season

I gaze at a new fire on Cedar Peak.  It looks angry, chomping at trees and brush on the hillside.  We can see trees torching from miles away.

The other, older fires are stirring too, not in a dangerous way, but as if they are saying, Look. I'm still here.

We land at an airstrip to find this helicopter sitting there, on standby for the Cedar Peak fire.

Fall is here, but fire season hasn't gotten the memo. 

We'll keep going.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sleep, a love story

Throughout the summer I have cravings.  Not for food or anything else you might expect, but for sleep.  I think about sleep, about closing my eyes and drifting off.  When I'm not working, I curl up like a cat and fall asleep in odd places.

This feels like a weakness, because it seems in our society we aren't supposed to sleep, at least not much.  A lot of people pride themselves on how early they get up and how busy they are.  My firefighter friends and I used to be like this, years ago.  We ground through thousand-hour overtime seasons with a smoky cough and nails that seemed permanently black from sifting through ashes looking for embers.  We said flippant things like "I can sleep when I'm dead."  We learned to catnap anywhere, on rocks, buses, and planes.

I don't like to admit that anything needs to change when you get older.  I don't think, barring injury or medical problems, that you have to slow down, change your ways, or sit on the couch all the time.  But I definitely have a new appreciation for sleep.  On my day off, I think about all the things I *should* do: go hiking, go to the gym, clean the house, pull weeds.  I do some of them, but first, I sleep.  I do some more things and I sleep some more.  And I don't feel bad about it, not really.  It's been a crazy, busy summer.  Even the bears are getting ready to rest. 

 Smoke still rises out of the forest.  It's not quite over here yet, but the real danger has passed.  There will be time for sleep soon.

I look like Sleeping Beauty when I sleep. Not.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Scouting

When we fly, we are supposed to be looking for that tricky plume of smoke hidden in the trees, one that perhaps a lookout has reported but can't see again, or maybe where a lightning strike was recorded but the fire is still being born.  And we do this, look closely at the forest to find out its secrets, scan the hillsides and valleys for something that looks different and out of place.

But sometimes my eyes wander.  In the places we fly, it's hard not to do this.  We fly past glaciers and rock spires, mountain goats and grizzly bears.  On days when we are chasing the wisps of fog we call waterdogs, or taking a trail crew in for rehab perhaps, I start tracing the lines of mountains.  I make maps in my mind of places I want to go on foot.

Lakes shimmer in cirques far below; I search the woods for a possible trail.  When I see a lonely path carved into a hillside, I wonder where it goes.  I gaze at fire lookouts as we pass.  I stare at my GPS.  What's that lake, how far is that trail, could I climb that peak?  There are so many possibilities.
Lookout from the air
Sometimes the people I fly with are hunters or backcountry skiers.  "I'm sure there's elk down there," they say, or "I bet that basin would be fun to ski in the winter."  Other people don't quite get it: "Well, we landed up here, so now I don't have to hike it," they say.  To each their own.  I'll continue my scouting.  Someday I'll get there.
I saw this lake from the helicopter when there was a fire there. Finally made it there this spring.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Cleaning up

Usually after fires sputter out and die, there is rehab to do.  Ah, the dreaded rehab: slogging through burned forests to stabilize steep slopes, unwrapping cabins, pulling hose and bundling it up in cargo nets for the flights out.  It's necessary, but not that fun.

But sometimes....
It was an achingly beautiful Indian summer day as we flew into the park to retrieve some temporary radio repeaters.  The brush on the hillsides was turning red and gold.  New snow dusted the peaks.  it was one of those days that makes you keep living in the mountains despite the harsh winters.

We searched the site where one of the repeaters was supposed to be.  The area our coordinates took us to was empty, a pass I once hiked many years ago on the longest day hike I've ever taken, 34 miles.  Today our travel was effortless as we circled the peaks, looking for antennas. Finally I spotted it, partially buried by snow from recent storms.

A large bear had walked here recently.  There were no berries up here; I wondered what it was looking for in this lonely place.
I'd like to think it stopped and admired the view.
It was hard to leave, but we had another site to visit.
The lookout popped out of the cabin as we landed, carrying a heavy pack.  He had three days off, and was hiking the seven miles downhill and fording the river to get to civilization.  "This is the best of all the lookouts," he said; he had only 20 people visit him all summer.

We flew back to the base, our mission complete, our cleanup done.  It's likely we won't land in the mountains until next summer.  The snow on the pass the bear and I walked in won't completely melt until then.  More will fall and cover out tracks, hiding any traces of our presence.  The smoke still rising from the big fires  will finally stop.  The lookout will be boarded up until next year.  The land will start its own cleanup from the fires, bigger in scale and more important than anything we could ever do.