Saturday, September 18, 2021

Feeling Fancy

 I drove anxiously up the rocky dirt road that hugged the side of the cliff. Meeting another vehicle would be nerve wracking at this point. But luckily, the fire lookout came into view.

I surveyed it, contemplating the next two days' stay. It looked kind of like a nuclear bunker, very different from the rustic cabins and towers I was used to. A locked radio room shared space with the lookout, from which transmissions could be heard (911? I was never able to hear clearly enough). The parking area was so steep that I had to chock my tires. Large radio frequency antennas loomed nearby.

But to my delight, opening the door to the lookout provided a view of a cozy, light-filled space. The lookout area resembled an air traffic control tower. Sliding glass doors led out to a catwalk. Inside, there were electric lights, a refrigerator, a heater, and even a microwave. This was the Four Seasons version of a fire lookout!

Not wanting to tackle the road again, I settled in and explored the local area. I ran a couple miles down the road and huffed and puffed my way back up. I took walks and read books on the catwalk. At night I turned on the lights and the heater, not waking up freezing as I sometimes do at fire lookouts.

I've stayed at lookouts with resident pack rats, with daddy longlegs infestations, and ones that have pristine outhouses. Some are local party spots, and some are terrifying to drive to. They're all different. There aren't many like this one with all its amenities. I love them all.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

For Jenn

 Jennifer parked her car and started out on the trail. Although she was solo, she wasn't really alone. She would encounter hundreds of people. Some would remember her later; they talked to her, even captured her in photos. 

She probably hiked swiftly: she was an experienced hiker. Maybe she thought about the trip she had taken to get here, the horseback riding tour she had taken, or her dogs, waiting for her at a local boarding facility, since they weren't allowed in the national park. She took a steep side trail; many hikers do at this point. There's a good reason for that. At the top you can look down onto a glacier and see several lakes. It's a beautiful spot.

Jenn didn't show up to pick up her dogs the next day. Her car remained in the parking lot, her belongings at her campsite back in town. She was reported missing. Speculation began. Was she lost? Had she encountered a bear? Helicopters swooped over the trail and adjacent areas, and searchers headed out on foot.

In the end, it was rangers with climbing gear who found her. She was 500 feet below the glacier overlook in a steep and rocky area. It appeared to be an accidental fall, but nobody seems to have seen her then. We will probably never know what happened. Did she slip while trying to get a different view? Did the wind cause her to lose her footing? In the end, it probably doesn't matter. Jenn was gone.

The armchair hikers came out. The predictable "Never hike alone!" was typed many times, probably by non-hikers, closely followed by "Women should never hike alone," which ignores the fact that men and women are similarly likely to be search and rescue subjects, with men actually a few percentage points higher.

The truth is, if you spend any time outdoors and on trails, bad things can happen. Sometimes you escape through mere luck alone. Maybe you were temporarily lost, but were able to find your way back. Perhaps you stumbled, but regained your footing, or slipped down a mountain but were able to stop yourself. The bear might not be in a fighting mood that day, or you were able to overcome the river current during a crossing. And then sometimes, even on a well traveled trail and equipped with the right gear, things go wrong.

I'm sorry, Jenn. I've stood in the spot where you took your last steps. I'm sure you were amazed at the beauty before you. I hope your last thoughts were of the beautiful day you were walking through. Hike on, Jenn. I didn't know you, but I won't forget you.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

What to do at a fire lookout

Ellie unwrapped the foils from my highlights. The state of my pandemic hair gave us plenty of time to talk. I had just told her I was spending the night at a rental fire lookout, and she looked puzzled. "What do you DO there?" she asked. It wasn't a judgmental question. I was similarly curious about what she did on her vacations, which seemed to involve pools and fruity drinks. We like different things, and that's okay. But her question made me ponder a bit. What do I do at fire lookouts?
I've stayed in four fire lookouts this summer, with more booked in the next few weeks. I was working at two of them, so much of my day was taken up with scanning for fires, talking to visitors, and taking weather observations. At the rentals, I had no such obligations. Some lookouts are on trail systems, so I go for hikes or even just run down the access road. The last one I rented was about an hour away from some hot springs, so I hiked in, soaked for awhile, and drove up to the lookout. I read lots of books. I poke around the building, finding historic logbooks. If the Osborne firefinder remains, I practice spotting fires with it. I take naps. And I spend a lot of time on the catwalk, sitting in the sun, spotting wildlife and just gazing at the mountains. It's kind of like being at a campsite, minus the tent. 

 For a lot of people, lookouts seem to be a minor novelty, or the backdrop to a selfie on social media. To me, they are more than that. There's something so incredible about waking up at sunrise in a little cabin on a mountaintop, a sky house that has stood there for seventy or more years. It's sacred ground. You don't have to do anything there, if you don't want to. Like the lookout, you can just be.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Back on the trail

 Three people set off on a 16 mile hike, including a short but steep scramble up a rocky peak. These three people had not done much hiking in the past month. What were they thinking?

A month of working on the fires meant that I left home at 6 am and didn't return until around 9:30 pm most days. While I attempted to exercise, this often meant sleepily riding my exercise bike or running 3 miles in semi-darkness. Hiking was put on hold; however I had high hopes for muscle memory.

The first six miles gained about 4100 feet, not as steep as some trails but enough to get your attention. We moved along briskly until I suddenly came to a stop, probably alarming Kim, as this is the classic "I see a bear" response. But no, it was a mother mountain goat and her baby.

We kept a respectful distance, but mom was wary and a bit annoyed. She walked toward us with a purposeful air. Kim and I booked it up the trail, leaving Donald, who had stopped to talk to some other hikers. He was on his own, we figured. Just when we thought we were in the clear, the baby goat ran after us.

We hurried up the last switchbacks to the historic chalet. In 2017 the lodge burned in a lightning caused fire, but it has since been rebuilt. People hike or ride horses to stay here; there is also a backcountry campsite. We paused here, but a peak nearby was our destination.

We scrambled up a rocky ridge, the views growing more expansive with every step. At the top we could see two turquoise lakes, a roaring waterfall, a small glacier, and mountains to the horizon.

We still had a long way to go. The downhill seemed to take forever, especially the last mile. We spread out, each with their own thoughts. Our feet hurt. We knew our legs would hurt the next day. It was great.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Termination Dust

That's what we used to call the first snow when it brushed the tops of the peaks in the Alaskan autumn. It meant the seasonal employees were about to be laid off; fire season was over, or nearly so. It was time to slow down: maybe you could take your pet sitter off standby, schedule a dentist appointment, think about seeing friends again.

Yesterday it snowed at one of the fire lookouts I volunteered at this year. It was just a dusting, but it foretold of things to come. Fire season isn't necessarily over yet up here: there are temperatures in the 70s and 80s predicted for next week. But it has definitely slowed, and I'm free once again to wander.

I worked nearly a month on a local fire. I didn't have to. I'm retired now. But my friend and former employee needed help, I could gain some additional income, and see old friends, so I agreed. Tomorrow I'm back to being gainfully unemployed.

I'm grateful for this program that lets me make some money, keep up my skills, and then leave when I decide to.  More hiking/fire lookout/general loafing about posts to come!

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Back at work: Observations from the other side

 The fires are still going, and I'm still working, helping out the forest where I used to work. My friends are hiking without me, complaining about the smoke without realizing how hard the firefighters have it right now, and how lucky they are that their town isn't overrun by fire. While I would like to be out on the trail, people here need help and the extra income will come in handy.  

It's interesting being back, though. I've only been gone seven months, but as a temporary worker, I've been able to observe the job through a different lens.  Lately I'm posted up at a regular office, and not at the fire. Here's a few things I've seen:

-Y'all (with some exceptions) work too much. Don't get me wrong, I was one of the worst offenders. But being back, I'm seeing meetings going on past 5 on Fridays, non-field workers here on the weekends, people taking on-call "days off."  Some of this is unavoidable, but in many cases people seem to think that everything would implode without them. It won't, take it from a retiree. They will find someone to fill your job in five minutes and life will go on. Take a break!

-Work is so much easier and less stressful without having to supervise anyone. Sorry, former employees: many of you were great. But, at least for me, supervision took a lot out of me and caused much anxiety. 

-Working from home is a wonderful thing. Keep doing it if you can. If you've forgotten: offices are loud, smell like people's icky lunch, and you have to drive to them. Avoid!

-I forgot how much of a time-sucking, will-to-live-destroyer administrative paperwork was. There is even more being piled on people since I left. 

-I don't miss my job. I truly enjoyed it most of the time. The flying, fires, and seeing new country was wonderful. But I see some retirees who keep coming back, not just for the money, but because they can't let go. They poured so much of themselves into fire that it leaves a void when it's time to turn the page. I'm not that person: I don't spend a lot of time looking back. There's so much else still ahead.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Programming interruption

 The hiking and kayaking and general enjoyment of life have been temporarily postponed. I'm helping out with a fire at my former forest. My former employee asked me to help, and I couldn't say no. Fun trips don't pay for themselves, so the additional money will help. 

This is a bad fire year in a lot of places. Please be careful with fire, and spare a kind thought for the firefighters who are working hard to keep you and your property safe!

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The (volunteer) lookout diaries: Canadian border edition

 I sat in the fire lookout, watching lightning strike mountains to the north. None of it was in my response area though. It was all up in Canada, the forbidden land just three miles away. The trees on both sides of the border swath look the same, and they burn the same, but if I saw a fire start over there, it would be up to the Canadians to respond.

I was filling in for the regular lookout, but as a volunteer: he had asked fire managers if they could pay me, but they didn't want to deal with it. I'm not a very good volunteer, or maybe I'm too good: I couldn't let go of the employee mentality. My only responsibilities were to call in the weather once a day and check in at the end of shift. I couldn't make myself loaf around though. I carried a radio with me everywhere I went, just in case. The helispot was displeasing to me, so I took an axe and cut down the little trees that could be tail rotor grabbers. I even packed 5 gallons of water up the steep trail from the creek a mile and a half below. 

The days were hot, and storms brewed over the park and the border almost every night. I looked for fires, but there weren't any. I lifted rocks for weights. Seeing an intriguing meadow down below, I hiked to it, and named it Magic Meadow. I read a lot of books.

Several hikers appeared. Most were hiking the Pacific Northwest Trail; they were delightful, with a love for trail life. A group of friends burst from the trees; they had planned to surprise me with treats. I shared the fruit with the thru-hikers. "Trail magic!" they exclaimed.

I had mixed feelings as I hiked down to return to civilization. I miss getting paid to fill in, like I used to, especially since I was paying my cat sitter. But I can't turn down a lookout stay; they are my favorite places. If I'm needed, I'll do it again.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Imposter Retiree

 I struggled most of my career with "imposter syndrome." Although objectively I had all the skills, knowledge, and ability to do my job, which was often difficult, I had a lot of self doubt. What was I doing here, I often thought. Surely I'll be outed as someone who doesn't know what she's doing! (Note: this is obviously silly, with all my experience, but who knows why the mind works the way it does).

Now I'm finding I have imposter retiree syndrome! It's been six months since I retired, but it still doesn't feel real. It feels like I'm on an extended furlough, and soon will have to go back. The phone will ring, and HR will say sorry, there was a mistake on your paperwork. Sometimes I start driving east, and zone out and think I need to turn into the office. I'm a little too interested in my former workplace's drama, as if for some reason I might need to deal with it.

I suspect this is normal, this feeling that I'm kind of getting away with something. Yesterday, as I floated in my kayak, a helicopter flew over, probably bound for a fire. Mixed with thoughts of missing out was a sense of relief. I put my time in, with all the associated hardships and hazards, and now I don't have to do those things anymore, unless I want to. 

Imposter retiree syndrome isn't a bad thing. I'm grateful for these days and hope to never take them for granted. They are deserved, but they are also a privilege. Not everyone makes it here. I won't forget that.


Friday, July 2, 2021


 Lately it's been pretty hot outside. People in northern climates aren't really used to prolonged stretches of 100 degrees. Cue the complaining on Facebook. People are posting pictures of snow and saying that they wish it was winter, that they wanted to be skiing again. Of course, when winter does arrive and it's below zero, they'll be saying they can't wait for summer.

Recently, a lovely young woman named Lindsay, a local wildland firefighter during the summers, had a freak accident while kayaking. Her parents sadly removed her life support and she slipped away. One of the West Yellowstone smokejumpers died after a hard landing. Four people from a helicopter company I often work with perished in a horrific crash. Several young people in my town have chosen suicide. I'm sure the ones who loved them wanted more days with them, whether those days were scorching or freezing.

Let's not wish time away. It goes by so fast as it is. Soon these summer days will be only a memory.