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