Sunday, August 19, 2012

notes from summer camp

There are a lot of places that firefighters don't mind leaving. Helibases that turn into windy dust bowls. Miserable fire camps overrun by the "camp crud". Sections of firelines covered with poison ivy. Mosquito-ridden helispots. But every so often, you encounter a seemingly magical place. This is a spot where people are friendly and the pace is slower. Cabins are scattered throughout the forest. There are hiking trails. There is no cell service. There might even be a cook there.

The only way to get to this one is by flying or hiking. I wish I could work there.

I recently spend four days at such a place. I was there ostensibly to be the incident commander on a fire; however, my fire, deep in the wilderness, was happily going about the business of putting itself out with no human intervention. So, between helicopter flights every couple of days and the occasional conference call and minor flurries of paperwork, I had time to enjoy the place. I took a loaner dog for walks down to the river. I helped make breakfast for the crew that unloaded a hay delivery. I rode my bike and ran at dusk from my campsite above the river. I took time to notice the silence.

I saw a big elk crossing this river.

There is a similar place in Alaska, a fly-in station that firefighters talk about wistfully. It took leaving Alaska for me to get an assignment there. The helibase was busy with helicopters coming and going, yet in the morning there was time to run 5 miles to the dump and back. In the evening, everyone gathered in the mess hall where there were actual cooks and wireless internet. Later, a few of us adjourned to the sauna the smokejumpers had built. We walked to town and poked around in strange stores. We watched the river go by.

The sauna

To the people who live and work in these remote stations, it's probably just another place to stay. Maybe they wish they were closer to a town, that they actually had time to go somewhere else on their days off. But for those of us who are just visiting, these places make up for the rattlesnake-infested fire camps and the nights in tent farms. I'm already plotting ways to get back.

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