Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Lost Boys of Minchumina: A firefighting mystery

The float plane banked over the fire camp, making sure his passengers could see their route to it from the lake where he would drop them off.  The two men said they understood.  When they were signed up to fight this fire, picked up basically off the street as many firefighters were in those days, they had claimed they were college students from the east coast, in Alaska on vacation.

The plane left them on the shore of remote Lake Minchumina with two sleeping bags and a few other supplies. Then they vanished.

Two weeks later, the two men stumbled into fire camp.  They had gotten lost, they said.  They had survived by eating frogs and drinking creek water. 

The people at fire camp were suspicious.  The two men looked far too healthy, clean and well-fed to have been wandering in the wilderness for so long.  Where had they been?  Had they found a cabin  stocked with food and stayed there until the supplies ran out, or until they wanted to return to civilization?   Had they seen the fire on the way in, thought "nope" and concocted a plan?  Nobody knew for sure, but the two were soon sent packing.

One of my coworkers in Alaska discovered the story while transferring historic fire files from paper to electronic records.  A letter, written by one of the firefighters, was asking for payment for the two weeks the two had been allegedly lost and wandering the tundra.  Intrigued, my coworker dug further, finding that one of the men had indeed been registered at an Ivy League university; there was no record of the other.  Reimbursement was denied.

The real story is lost in the mists of time, over sixty years ago.  What really happened to the two would-be firefighters? Were they truly lost, or living out an Alaskan adventure?


Alaska fire scar and fire in the distance

Friday, December 16, 2016

The first rule of book club...

Just kidding! There are no rules at my book club.  I've heard of some who take it very seriously, who take notes, and vote what to read.  That's not us.

We go wherever someone volunteers to host.  Someone will email a title of a good book, and we say OK and read it.  You can bring an elaborate homemade dessert, or pick something up from Costco and we will eat it, either way.  You can drink wine, or not.  If you didn't finish the book, or didn't even (gasp!) read it, that's OK too.

We meet once a month, give or take.  If someone can't make it, there's always next time.  We recently exchanged "white elephant" books, which meant someone ended up with a book on "How to Be Elegant."  We tend to laugh a lot and eat too much cheese bread.

It's really not about the books at all, although that's what brings us together on a cold night in December.  It's about this little community that forms for a few hours once a month, where we talk about work, life, and yes, books too.


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Firefighters in snow

There are some places where people fight (or light) fires all year round.  Other places, like the Grand Canyon, have the possibility of rescues every month of the year.  The place where I work is not one of those places.

When the temperature is below zero and the snow is piling up like it is now, you'd expect the wildland firefighters would be deep into hibernation like the bears are.  The seasonals might be, but the rest of us are still here.

What are we doing, anyway? I know I've addressed this before, but this is one of the most common questions I get, after "Do you fly the helicopter?" No. Nobody wants to see (or ride in) that.  I don't really blame people for asking.  It used to be that you could theoretically shoot a cannon through a fire office in January and not hit anyone.  But climate change and increasing bureaucracy means that we are here, working.  When T. got the job equivalent to mine on an adjacent forest, he negotiated a schedule that would let him have a few months off in the winter.  It worked for maybe one year, after which he was heard to exclaim, "I don't know why I thought I could do that!"

Winter is when all the paperwork happens.  Burn plans, lesson plans for classes, aviation plans, proposals for new programs, the choosing of helicopter vendors for the next four years.  People can be heard clicking through screens, taking their mandatory computer security training, whistleblower refreshers, and everything else that, if not completed, allegedly removes your computer access.  One of the detailers walks back and forth between the buildings with papers.  What is he actually doing?  Maybe nothing, but he looks busy.  He has paper, it must be legit.
Image from http://imgfave.com/
It's also hiring season, in which we get our referral lists, complain about our referral lists, and try to track down potential employees who are off doing something fun like surfing in Costa Rica. The glacial pace of this process means it takes several weeks and provides a good excuse for lack of apparent busyness.  When asked, "What are you working on?" if you say "HIRING" in an aggrieved tone, the other person usually moves on quickly.

Of course, it's not all paperwork.  Sometimes I help plow snow, which means that I sit in the plow truck ostensibly poised to jump out and open gates or shovel hard-to-reach areas, but which usually consists of me drinking cocoa and saying helpful things like, "Why are you plowing this area, nobody uses it in the winter."  Our base gets a lot of snow, so there's always shoveling to be done so I can tunnel into it.  Mice invade my office and must be stopped.  Dangerous icicles need to be removed before they fall on the heads of hopeful job applicants who stop by out of the blue, assuming we are always there.

There is also a plethora of meetings, in which important topics are discussed, projects are assigned, and it seems like there should be cookies, but there never is.  The best thing about these meetings is that when someone asks what you are working on, you can say "HIRING" in your most martyr like tone, and everyone quickly moves on.

Is there a lull in your job, or do you do something different in different seasons?  Do you have a task like hiring that is so understood to be tedious and time consuming that all you have to do is mention it for others to stop asking what you're doing?

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Adventurous/Reckless

Living near a national park and surrounded by national forest, my hiking companions and I see a lot of people doing things that are, well, questionable.  Things like starting off on a 12 mile trail at 4 pm with one plastic water bottle, hiking in camouflage in hunting season, and trail running solo in known grizzly habitat in the early morning.  Many times, people stop us to ask what trail they are on and where it goes, as if they don't even see the trailhead signs.

I thought of those people the other day as we drove towards a trailhead.  I thought we probably resembled them, with our optimistic thinking that didn't include snow blocking the road. Snowmobilers undoubtedly thought so, looking curiously at us as they unloaded their machines.  As we retreated to an unknown trail we had seen on the way up the road, late season hunters drove past, probably noting our lack of guns.
Hmm...time to turn around.  Only snowmobile tracks from here.
As we hiked up the hill in the snow, I thought about the difference between being adventurous and being reckless.  It's a fine line, and many times I've crossed it: going out unprepared for conditions, stubbornly pressing on when the weather deteriorated, becoming temporarily lost while not paying attention to landmarks.

The trail we ended up on
 But while we may have seemed clueless, that actually wasn't the case.  We all carried extra warm clothes.  J. had firestarters and a headlamp in his pack.  We had snowshoes, although we never used them.  Like Everest climbers, we set a turn around time so we wouldn't be coming down near dusk when hunters might be around, desperate to get a deer on the last day of the season.  We had topo maps.  So maybe the difference between the two is having a backup plan.
Snowy trail
We didn't get to the fire lookout we were hoping to hike to.  We didn't even get out of the deep woods.  But a day outside with friends is always worth it, even if it didn't quite go as planned.

Friday, November 25, 2016

minus one

I mentioned Sherri Papini in this post about the women missing and murdered while out running.

Sherri has been found alive, and while details are few and speculation is rampant (why would kidnappers release her?  Was she really captured? Why hasn't more information been released about the alleged captors?), at least she is home with her family.  Her name won't join the sad long list.

Meanwhile the people who loved the other women are still missing them.  I think of Karina Vetrano every time I run, and I look at other people in the woods just a little more suspiciously.  I hate that.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Refuge

Until I bought this house, I thought I didn't like to be home.

I've owned two other houses, but this is the first one that has only my name on the mortgage.  The other two houses were twice as large as the one I have now.  They both had two stories and neighbors close by.  They had green lawns and city water. 

Now I live in a 1000 square foot house.  I have a well that is shared with the next house over, which is the second home of some seldom seen Canadians.  My utilities run on propane.  I live on a gravel road.  My yard is a forest. 

There wasn't anything wrong with my other houses.  In fact, when I left one of them, it had several offers and sold in three days for $100,000 more than I paid for it two years earlier.  But they didn't feel like home.  My furniture looked temporary in the elegant rooms.  There were boxes that never got unpacked. Although I kept one house after my marriage ended, I never wanted to be there.

I constantly planned trips.  I went on every fire assignment I could.  I escaped on the weekends, putting off lawn mowing and repairs.

The moment I walked into my current house, I knew it was different.  It was just a small ranch house on a half acre.  But I loved it immediately.  It seemed like it was made for me.

Pieces of my life hang on the walls: a painting of a female snowboarder, a wall hanging from Nepal, a photo of a fire lookout.  A hot tub that I helped install is outside the back door.  There is usually a black cat on the couch.  Deer and turkeys wander through the yard.

Last week I went to a gated community to assess helicopter landing areas.  Million dollar houses sat on large lots.  They were beautiful, but I wasn't envious.  I already have my place of refuge.



Saturday, November 12, 2016

Stop it.

Karina Vetrano. Vanessa Marcotte.  Ally Brueger.  Do you know these names?

They were all young women who were killed between July 30 and August 7 of this year while out running in broad daylight near theirs or relative's homes. They were murdered in different states. None of their killers have been found.
Ally Brueger.  She ran 10 miles a day.  She was shot in the back. Police say she may have known her killer.
This, sadly, is not really noteworthy.  If you start researching, you will find many more of these stories.  Sherry Arnold. Sarah Hart (she was pregnant). Melissa Millan. Lauren Bump. Judith Milan. If you keep looking, more and more names surface. Melissa Millan's case is still unsolved.  And Sherri Papini vanished on November 2 while running in California and has yet to be found.
Vanessa Marcotte.  She was a Google employee who was killed a half mile from her mother's house.  Her killer tried to burn the body. All photos in this post were obtained from news sites.
You would think people would be united in outrage and sadness at the deaths of these women.  Probably most are, and yet, when you visit news sites with their stories, the victim blaming begins immediately.

"Women shouldn't run alone," commenters, mostly men, proclaim.  Others declare that we should carry unwieldy knives or guns. We shouldn't wear ponytails either, they say, because an attacker could grab our hair.  Several indicate that Karina Vetrano brought it on herself because she wrote blog entries with selfies, so was obviously an "attention seeker." One man types that she shouldn't have worn "tight clothes" while running.  These people seem to be saying that this woman, who fought her attacker so ferociously that her teeth were knocked out and her neck nearly broken, caused her horrible death by wearing shorts and by posting pictures of herself.
This is a still from a surveillance camera video that captured Karina Vetrano in the last moments of her life.
No.

Are we, as women, supposed to be relegated to running in packs, sticking to the treadmill, wearing baggy sweats (as if this matters to a predator) or not venturing outside alone? Isn't saying this implying that, well, men will always prey on women, we can't change that, in fact we accept it, so women just need to change their behavior?

To begin with, we need to stop blaming the victim. It feels like they are being blamed, in part, for being female. When Joe Keller, a good looking teenager, vanished during a solo run in Colorado, abduction became a theory. I read many accounts of his story, wanting him to be found. Despite Joe being a young, attractive male running in only a pair of shorts, I couldn't find a single commenter who stated that he shouldn't have run alone, or should have had more clothes on (Joe was eventually found, a victim of an accidental fall from a cliff).

I've been a runner for years.  Being on my university cross country team, and then having to run in lockstep with other people on fire crews for "group PT," I appreciate running alone.  You can run the pace you want. There's no need for small talk. You can think your own thoughts.

Of course, everyone needs to be sensible, women and men. We have a term in firefighting, Situational Awareness. It means to always consider your surroundings, not only what is happening now but what might happen in the future. Don't zone out. I don't wear ear buds, because I want to hear what's going on around me. If I see sketchy people or cars, I turn around. I've been known to sprint to get away from something or someone that looked odd.

I don't know how to fix what's happening. I don't know how to stop men from preying on women. But to blame Karina and the others for their deaths is terribly wrong. It needs to stop.
Karina Vetrano. She was a world traveler and had a masters degree in speech pathology.



Sunday, November 6, 2016

here comes the sun

The temperature was in the 30s at the trailhead.  And because we were going to be gaining elevation, the warmest it would probably be was somewhere around 50 in the afternoon.  In the height of summer, I might have hesitated if I saw that forecast. I might consider a gym day. 

But this was November, and we just had the wettest October on record.  Rainfall totals were anywhere from 6 to 12 inches around the valley.  The October average for the last 30 years is around 0.7!  There were only 3 days without measurable precipitation.  There were a lot of gym days.  When I ran outside, I knew my shoes would soon be perched on a boot dryer.

So yesterday was a hiking day, even though we knew there would be snow at the higher elevations and probably a cold wind at the top of the mountain.  Soon passing a large church group, we charged up the trail, which is sometimes known as one of America's most dangerous hiking trails, due to bears having a preference for the area.  However, since the church group was slower and probably sweeter than us, we figured we would be fine (Grizzly country humor).
 The trail turned snowy after a saddle, but we had a glimpse of our fire lookout destination, and pressed on.
The lookout is staffed in the summer.  A Park Service tower, it has sweeping views of the west side of Glacier Park and into the North Fork of the Flathead River.  Now boarded up for winter, it waits patiently for July, when the shutters will be opened and it will be back in business.
 
 
 You never really know what you'll get in the mountains.  There could be an early winter, or warm days late into the fall.  After a month of rain, this day was a gift, and a reminder not to take anything for granted, even sunshine and trails that lead to the sky. 
 
 
 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Floating

I float in ten inches of warm water.  It is completely dark and soundless.  Five minutes could have passed, or forty-five.  It's impossible to tell.  This could be a really crazy idea, or the best one ever.

Earlier, I walked warily into the float center.  Some places in the town where I live have an air of what I'll call "entitled hippie with a trust fund."  Luckily, the emo factor was low.

This is the pod you get into.  It is filled with hundreds of pounds of Epsom salt (the kind they use is pharmaceutical grade magnesium sulfate).  This allows you to float on the surface.

First, you have to take a shower.  I'd like to have this shower in my house!

When you close the door of the pod, you're left alone with your thoughts.  Trying to relax was harder than I thought.  Instead of thinking about zen things, my mind wandered.  I wonder what time it is.  It's really dark in here.  What should I have for dinner?  Ow, I got salt water in my eye.  Stop moving around!

But eventually, you have to relax, sort of.  There's nothing else to do.  You effortlessly float, weightless.  Some people fall asleep.  When the lights come on in the pod, you know you're done.

Supposedly, flotation therapy has a lot of benefits, from pain relief to lessening anxiety and helping with a number of health ailments.  As a person who loves hot springs, has a hot tub, and has trouble truly relaxing, I figured it couldn't be a bad thing.

I didn't come up with any major revelations from an hour in the pod.  But I did feel calm.  I drove by the gym without feeling like I should be exercising.  After the darkness, colors looked brighter.

If you have a flotation center near you, try it! It's really kind of strange, but sort of magic too.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Fall in a tourist town

I charge up the trail, feeling optimistic.  It is a cloudy, cool Monday, and there aren't a lot of vehicles at the trailhead.  During the summer I avoid this trail.  It's short and starts at a campground; on a weekend day there are hundreds of people here.

Those of us who live here often recreationally complain about tourists: the traffic! clogged trails! the "resort tax"!  It seems ridiculous that you usually can't find a parking spot at Logan Pass in the park after 10 am in the summer, despite acres of asphalt.  At the same time, we know there are perks we enjoy because of them, like an airport with lots of flights, good restaurants, and a great ski area.  Still, the time in between the summer and winter tourist crowds is a welcome break.

I only encounter a few people on the trail, and can move fast.  I arrive at the lake, amazed as always by how different it looks in different seasons.

On the way down, that's when I start seeing them: the tourists! At least thirty of them tromp up the trail.  One guy wears a Russian style fur hat; one girl has elected to hike in Uggs.  Some anxiously inquire how much farther it is to the lake.  I wonder why they are here, in the gloomy, rainy autumn we are having.  I'd like to think they are the adventurous ones, traveling in the off-season, not following the herd.

The winter skiers will be here soon, and the hikers will leave.  Those of us who live in the valley appreciate the lull, but we know why they come here.  All we need to do is look around us.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Thirteen

Thirteen years is a long time.  In the last 13 years, I moved four times and had four different jobs.  Thirteen years ago I was married and now I'm not.  In the last 13 years I've been to Ecuador, Belize, Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, Nepal, Patagonia, Antarctica, and Iceland.

Today is the 13th anniversary of a helicopter crash.  Not a fatal one, at least not then, although I think that one of the passengers might still be alive today if he hadn't been there, sitting in the front seat.  I don't talk about it a lot, partly because I've known so many people who didn't make it through their own crashes, or who were forever physically and mentally changed afterwards.  "What's the big deal, nobody died," somebody once said to me.  It's hard to explain.  How do you explain the impact of this, when you and the others are up walking around, looking just fine?
But sometimes I do talk about it, because my crews want to know, and there are lessons they can learn from it: the importance of training for disaster, so your actions are second nature when it does happen, and why every person on every flight needs to have a purpose, no joyrides allowed.  When I talk about it, I usually don't know what people are thinking.  Maybe they are thinking what's the big deal, or maybe I'm not sure I want this job now. Sometimes it's hard to tell.

This summer there was a fire close to the crash site; so close that fire camp was only a quarter mile away.  The hotshot crew from my forest was there.  They had heard my story but that wasn't the end of it.

The 20 men and women drove to the crash site.  They lined out in a row as if they were looking for smokes on the fire, and gridded through the meadow.  But instead of embers, they looked for pieces of wreckage.  They found over a hundred, tiny particles of paint and metal and honeycomb, after 13 years still lying in the grass where they had come to rest.


The crew took them home.  From the wreckage they created a piece of art for me.

This is the tail number of the aircraft, made of small pieces of wreckage.
This is one of the most thoughtful gifts I have ever received.  I hung it on my wall, where I see it every day.  The past thirteen years haven't all been good, but not everyone gets a second chance. Or has friends like these.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Last, Best Day

The pilot and I looked at each other, unable to believe our luck.  "This is the best work day of the summer!" we decided.

On the surface, it didn't sound too great. I almost skipped it, because I have plenty of employees who could do this mission.  And our cargo was definitely not glamorous...flying a deconstructed outhouse and years of human poop out of a backcountry campsite.

But.  Anytime you get to land a helicopter in Glacier National Park is worth doing.  And when it's in a spectacular cirque called Hole in the Wall Basin, well...you'd be a fool not to go, regardless of cargo.
I backpacked to this campsite years ago.  It is surrounded by waterfalls cascading down the cliffs.  We cooked a gourmet dinner on a camp stove and climbed up to viewpoint to see the sunset.  Peering down, I spied a mountain goat strolling into our campsite.  It grabbed my sweaty shorts off a branch where they were drying and ran off, wanting to chomp on the salt.  Luckily, some other campers headed it off and it dropped the shorts.

Now, we set up the helicopter landing site at the foot of a lake.  Kayakers looked bemused as the helicopter went back and forth over the mountains carrying building pieces and barrels.
 I jumped in the front seat, displacing one of my minions on the mission.  He got to see the basin the day before, and being the boss does have some perks.  We were headed to the campsite to pick up the crew that had to pack up the outhouse and its cargo.  As we settled into the basin, I expected to see a group of 20-somethings who had been pressed into the stinky project.  But instead, the average age of the workers was around 50.  I got the impression that they volunteered for the duty.
And really, why wouldn't you?
The crew happily bounced around the meadow, taking pictures of the helicopter.  The pilot and I took our own, looking around in disbelief.  This was it, the almost-last mission of the summer, to a place that made it all worth it. Soon the helicopter would leave for the winter, and snow would cover this valley, leaving it to the goats and bears.  We were lucky to have been there, if only for a brief moment.


Saturday, October 1, 2016

Wandering in the kingdom of the larch

The temperature was 41 degrees as J's truck maneuvered along the bumpy road to the trailhead.  The mountain we were headed for was several thousand feet higher, so it was bound to be in the 30s up there.  But it was a dry fall day, and our days of hiking were numbered.  It could snow tomorrow.  We were committed.

My guidebook recommended this trail as a fall hike, and it soon became clear why.  After stepping over a large pile of bear scat, we ascended into an enchanted forest.

It's easy to overlook larch trees on a hillside until autumn.  Their needles are green like all the other conifers.  But in the fall they turn a glorious shade of yellow before their needles drop for the winter.  This makes the hillsides around here golden.

We passed above a chain of sparkling lakes.  Someday I want to camp here.

The wind bit through our layers.  We only spent a few moments at the high point above 8000 feet.  A lookout once stood here; now only metal bedframes remain.  It must have been an amazing place to work, watching gold spread across the hills.

It was cold, and we left the golden forest to its march towards winter.  I couldn't help looking back though, imagining life in a little cabin among the blazing trees.  I'll be back.

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.