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.