Friday, November 25, 2011

land of the lost

P. and I sized each other up.  City boy, I thought. But he seemed nice enough, and fit, and most importantly, I had no choice. We were going to spend the next few days together whether we liked it or not.

Our assignment was to hike into a backcountry cabin in [insert name of Famous National Park here] and monitor a wilderness fire. We would have a canoe to paddle over and collect fuel samples, calculate rate of spread, and draw maps. In other words, a pretty sweet assignment.

Everything started off fine. We had a late start because, well, this was the government. But we only had five miles to hike to the cabin, so what could go wrong? With his long legs, P. quickly put some distance between us. This was OK with me however, because although he had our only map, radio, and canister of bear spray, I had all the food. He had the skinny look of someone who needed to eat often, so I was sure I wouldn't lose him for good.

I quickly determined that my government-issued backpack was the most uncomfortable item I had ever worn. To distract myself from the pain, I started talking to myself. Some people might call it whining. Those people are just big meanies. I was fully engaged in this activity when I came around a corner to find P. huddled over the map.

"This doesn't seem right," he fretted. "That cabin should be RIGHT HERE." He crashed off into the woods, only to return defeated. "They said it was only a faint trail, so that hikers didn't find it, but it's not here." This was before firefighters carried GPS units, but we could both read a map. It clearly showed a small black square denoting the cabin. "Well, let's go a little bit farther," P. said tentatively. It was already starting to get dark.

Finally we halted in the middle of the trail. "Let's go down to the beach and make a fire," I said, fully knowing that this was highly illegal in [Famous National Park]. P. perked up. "Here's a fusee!" he said. We sat around our tiny fire and second guessed ourselves. "I'm going to go find it," P. said bravely. Because he was on the move, he took the bear spray and radio. I inched closer to the fire. Every squirrel in the brush sounded like an enormous grizzly looking for dinner. Why did I have to read those bear attack books, I wondered to myself.

Finally, a loud crashing in the bushes signaled P.'s return. He looked miserable. "I couldn't find it," he moaned. "I decided to swim, because I knew there was a boathouse where they keep the canoes. And, I sprayed myself with the bear spray." He plopped down in the sand. "We have to call somebody," he said.

We looked at each other and cringed. The only thing worse than calling someone and admitting we couldn't find the cabin was to actually have to be rescued by the rangers, but at least in that case you probably would have an interesting, debilitating injury that would decrease some of the shame of it. Plus, who were we going to call at 2 in the morning?

"I know, we'll call the fire lookout," I said. As I recall, I made P. do it. The lookout answered the radio immediately. "Oh, the map is wrong," she said cheerfully. "The cabin isn't where it shows it at all." The correct location was an hour's hike back down the trail. We carefully hid the evidence of our illegal fire and started walking. P. hung back for once, making me go first to be bear bait. "Hey bear," I yelled as we traversed head-high brush. P. didn't make a sound as I stomped along sending some unkind thoughts in his direction.

At 3 am we stumbled into the cabin. P. conscientiously took some notes on smoke volume before we collapsed into the bunks. "Let's not tell anybody about this," he said. And as far as I know, the lookout never told, either. We spent the next few days canoeing, taking notes, and hiking out without incident.

I never saw P. again, but, even though it was years ago, I'd like to think that he, too, sometimes remembers the Night of the Lost Firefighters and it makes him smile just a little.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

(mis) adventures in firefighting

2012 will be my 25th season fighting fire. I'd like to say that I've come this far with no mishaps, but I'm sure some of my firefighting friends would immediately come out of the woodwork to tell some stories. It wouldn't have been fun if things hadn't gone wrong occasionally. It can't always be unicorns and rainbows out there, can it? The statute of limitations has expired on most of these (I think). So here it is, the list of shame. Along the way, I:

  • Caught my hair on fire with a fusee while burning in front of a fire with the hotshots.
  • Started an unintentional fire at fire camp.
  • Started an unintentional fire at a helibase.
  • Temporarily misplaced a backcountry patrol cabin, thus leading to an illegal campfire in a national park, an unplanned swim, my firefighter partner spraying himself with pepper spray, and a 2 am death march through grizzly infested brush fields.
  • Temporarily misplaced my 20 person crew while I scouted for a water source. (But those meadows all looked the same!)
  • Temporarily misplaced an entire fire while I scouted for better egress. (Thanks Tacoma for starting up the saw).
  • Engaged in an inappropriate fire assignment romance. (It was so fun though).
  • Sent a rookie to Supply for a gallon of rotor wash. (But felt bad and had him come back before he got there).
  • Got caught by fire camp security trying to sneak off to some prohibited hot springs with my helitack module.
  • Was determined not to ask for resupply on a 4 day helitack fire, so ran out of food (thanks Aaron for sharing!)
  • Forgot my headlamp, and of course ended up in the woods at night.
  • Forgot my hard hat, and had to wear my flight helmet all day like a dork.
  • Asked for too many blivets on a helitack fire, causing Dan and I to test the limits of our line packs with gear on the long, long hike out. (Sorry!)
Unfortunately, this is only a partial list...stay tuned! I'm sure there will be more to come.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

baby, we were born to run

I run up a snowy trail at sunset. It's no longer fire season, so I'm back to fitting in workouts after work. During the season, my crew and I theoretically get one hour a day for "PT" (physical training, aka physical torture). Theoretically, because once fires start, we are often too busy with helicopter missions and fires.

Most fire crews run. If you see a nice gym at a fire cache, chances are you are in the vicinity of smokejumpers or hotshots. The rest of us tend to get by with scary, rickety weight benches and ancient dumbbells. This forces us to be creative (a grueling workout called Billy Big Arms comes to mind). So, often, we run.

Homemade pullup bar in AK

Some crews run together in grim lockstep. Others venture out in pairs or alone. On one of my crews, we would start out together and then gradually separate based on our individual pace. As we passed each other we would enthusiastically high-five in encouragement.

One day, the foreman decided to motivate K, one of our detailers. "Run faster!" he yelled. "There are GIRLS ahead of you!" Being one of those GIRLS, I didn't find it amusing that he seemed to think that the slowest male should be able to run faster than the fastest female. Plus, we were running up a heinous hill. I growled at both of them and increased my pace.

At the end of the run, we waited on the helipad for the foreman and K. As they approached, we could hear the yelling: "Run faster! Jennifer Lopez is up there waiting for you!"  Now that the run was over, I could afford to think this was funny. I remembered a long trekking day in Nepal where one of my hiking partners had written in the snow "Hot Men Ahead!" to give the female trekkers some pep in their step. This kind of motivation could work, I had to admit.

Another time, the crew started out for an 8 mile run. Joe, a visiting helicopter manager, had a reputation for being a fanatical runner, but he was older, and sure enough, we left him about a half mile behind as we raced along past the Bad Boys Ranch and toward the powerline where the two mile long Hill of Horror awaited. In survival mode as we struggled up the hill, at first we didn't hear the footsteps behind us as Joe reeled us in.

"Try to keep your breathing the same as it was on the flats," he said serenely as he blew past us, disappearing up the hill. "Even if it means slowing down," we could hear him say in the distance.

Now that it is winter, I have time for more variety. I reacquaint myself with the gym. I climb at the indoor rock wall. I hike in the snow, and dust off my snowboard and snowshoes. But some days, I keep it simple. I put on some layers and find my running shoes, and head out into the bright, cold afternoon. I listen to my breath. I am present in the moment, and I am happy. I just run.

Friday, November 11, 2011

the web of fire

It's 11/11/11, a dream of a day for those who see portents and signs in everything. People are asking: Should I buy a lottery ticket today? Get married today?

Not me. I'm going for a more sure thing, an early winter hike with two sweet friends.

Three firefighters and a dog hike up a trail. Snow sprinkles the ground. Being firefighters, we look around, judging the terrain.

"I bet we could hike up there and get to the ridge," one of us says. We look at each other and shrug. Why not? We start climbing cross country. It's slippery. We kick steps in the snow and climb over patches of blowdown. I use the mountaineering rest step, trying to stay close to the only one of us who has bear spray and is wearing safety orange.

The valley from Columbia Mountain Trail, 11/11/11

As we climb, we talk idly about winter plans, snowboarding, and travel, but our conversation always drifts back to fire. "How was Texas this year?" we ask. "Did you run into my friend there?"

Sometimes I imagine every wildland firefighter in the country attached to each other by invisible threads, a web that covers our entire restless seasonal tribe. There are less than six degrees of separation between all of us. If we don't know each other, we know someone in common, have been on the same fire, or worked at the same district.

Rappeller buddy check

 Everywhere I go, someone will come up to me at briefing or on the helibase, exuberantly saying something like this: "Hi! I was on your helitack module in 2000 in Taos!" or "My buddy Steve used to be on your crew!" It is like having a large extended family who you hardly ever see, but when you do, you slide right back into conversation like you were never gone.

Central Complex, Alaska

When a strand of this web breaks, when one of us is gone, however it happens, we feel it deep into our bones. We can hear the roar of the fire that took them, or feel the shudder of the aircraft as it descended. They were one of us, whether we knew them or not. They stood on the same ground, breathed the same smoke into their lungs, knew what it felt like to chase lightning through the hills. They won't be coming home, but we are. We carry their memory with us on every fire.

My friends and I stand on the ridge. A cold wind wraps around us. It's time to head down, to slide down the mountain through the brush and snow. We walk separately, but we are connected forever.

Happy hiking partners

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Avalanche Lake, 11/9/11

Nothing to say about fire today.

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
Lao Tzu

Sunday, November 6, 2011

girl clothes

When the firefighting movie Always came out, I was living in Hawaii. Kendell and I sat in his car at a Honolulu drive-in, eating pizza and making fun of it.

"Look at them, trying to use a backpack pump on 100 foot flames," he scoffed. "That would NEVER HAPPEN. This is SO DUMB."

At the time, we had no idea of how truly awful firefighting movies could be (sorry, Howie Long, I know we share a zip code, but Firestorm? Really?) and much as I like Holly Hunter, I had to agree that there was not much that was realistic in the movie. However, there was one scene I still remember.

In it, her reckless air tanker pilot boyfriend Richard Dreyfuss brings Holly a birthday present. It's not really her birthday, but she forgives him when she sees what he has given her...a white dress and high heeled shoes. Girl clothes.

Holly and Richard, drinking champagne in fire camp. I want to go there!

Most of the summer, I look like this:

I wake up, put my hair in a ponytail, and throw on nomex pants and a t-shirt. I wear big black boots. Sunscreen is the only cosmetic on my face, unless you count dirt. My feet and my hands are calloused. I am one of the guys. And most of the time, this is ok. The men I like prefer a woman in a Patagonia fleece and no makeup to one who looks high maintenance. But sometimes, I want to wear girl clothes.

I go to the Blue Moon with four men I work with. "I need to go home and change my clothes," I whine. Being men, they look at me like I'm crazy. "What you have on is fine," they say. I'm wearing nomex pants and a too-big hoody. "You look better than all the other girls here," one of them says sweetly, but inaccurately, since the other women in the bar are wearing carefully applied makeup and cute tank tops.

High fashion in Galena, Alaska

So every once in awhile, when I don't want to feel like a fire guy, I take my time. Mascara. Dark kohl eyeliner. A black dress that can make a good guy go bad. All things every woman should have, even if she only brings them out once a year. Even if she usually wears Icebreaker and puffy jackets.

I like going to work and not worrying about my appearance. Knowing that most of the time, I can spontaneously go for a hike in what I'm wearing. Feeling ready for anything. But every once in awhile, I want to feel like Holly in the movie where she comes down the stairs in her beautiful white dress and everyone turns to look. Amen, sister. I get it.

This is me too.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


It's supposed to start snowing tonight. I sit at my desk, staring outside. The thought, why am I here? occurs to me. When I can't come up with an answer, I escape to the park for the afternoon. I hike to this fire lookout:

Apgar Lookout, Glacier National Park
I was last here a year ago today. Everything is different now. A year can change everything.

Today is one of those heartbreakingly beautiful days that remind you again why you love living in a small mountain town. If I close my eyes I could believe it was September. I'm wearing too many layers,  a phenomenon that rarely happens. Usually I wear too little and have to keep moving. I smile at the other six women I see on the trail. There are no men hiking here today.

The lookout is one of several cabins scattered through Glacier on lonely mountains. Few are staffed in the summer anymore. Instead, detection flights spot most of the fires these days. Lookouts like this sit empty with all their stories, their shutters tightly closed, ready for the long winter sleep.

RIP Scenery Lookout (no longer standing)

In a few months, I will come up here with snowshoes. The approach will be two miles longer, and the lookout buried in drifts. The wind will be colder. The golden larches will have lost their needles long ago.

But eight months from now there will be a new fire season. The seasonal fire lookouts will hike up to their cabins, throw open the shutters and let the sun inside.

I stop at my favorite beach along Lake McDonald. It's still warm enough to sit on the rocks and watch the water.

It is not the end of everything, but just the beginning of something new.