Monday, June 30, 2014

Carrying the burden

Nineteen pounds isn't very heavy, when you think about all the things you carry through life.  It's not much, really.  You could carry it all day, if you had to.

So I step forward through the crowd of fifty firefighters, and pick up my 19 pound rock.  They all look pretty much the same, gray quarry rock with jagged edges.  But one is mine, I can see it.  It just feels right in my hands.  This is my burden.

It is the one year anniversary of the day when 19 young men died in the flames of a fire they were fighting while they tried to protect a town from burning.  For the next 19 minutes, I think about them while I carry this weight, this burden of remembering not only them but all of the others.

Some people walk in groups with their rocks.  A few run.  Some do calisthenics.  Many wander alone into the woods.  I walk on a forest trail, shifting my rock from my shoulder to my arms.  It feels heavier now.  It is the weight of knowing what their last moments must have been like, when they knew there was no way out, that their final view would be burning sagebrush under an angry sky.  It is the weight of responsibility of keeping my crewmembers safe on the fires of the future.  It is the weight of all those unfinished lives.  It is almost too much to bear.

After 19 minutes a fire truck siren wails through the trees.  Firefighters emerge from all directions.  One by one we place our rocks on the ground, making a cairn.  I go last.  I carefully place a wildflower on top of the pile.

My arms are now empty.  But the weight is still there.

My rock

Friday, June 27, 2014

Lights On For Granite Mountain

On Monday, June 30, wildland firefighters and those who support us will be leaving our porch lights on all night to mark the one year anniversary of the deaths of 19 firefighters on the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona.

If you haven't heard of this tragedy you can read about it here; there are many other sites that detail the events of that day and its aftermath.  Honestly, I can't bear to write about it.

Leaving our lights on won't bring them back.  It doesn't raise money for anybody; there have been other events for that.  All it does is say that we remember them, the young men who went into this fire to save other people's homes and died in the flames.  It will be a path of lights shining in the darkness, all over the country and maybe in other places of the world, showing them that wherever they are, we won't forget, and we are still waiting for them to come home.

Please consider joining us.

Monday, June 23, 2014


What do fire crews do when they're not fighting fires?  They do projects.  "Projects" is a wide category, varying from mostly fun to downright busywork.  But there are no fires, so it's off to project land.

Some of my crewmembers claim the riding lawnmowers and zone out listening to music while they mow acres of lawns.  Others glumly unload cinder blocks in a downpour for the rec crew.  They pick up branches and sticks left behind by a recent timber sale on the compound; we later get in trouble for doing it because this project was meant for a different crew.  B. loads up crewmembers and drives to a campground to cut down hazard trees; they soon return, saying someone else beat them to it.  This is what it's come to:  project stealing is running rampant.

A common project is "brushing," which sounds like it belongs in a hair salon or horse farm but is actually cutting trees and bushes that are growing into or have fallen over trails and roads.  Brushing is endless;  there's always more to do.  Spring rains have caused the vegetation to explode:  the grass along my running trails is as high as my shoulders. It's best not to rush while brushing.  Brushing will always be there.

On really rainy days, the crew works around the station.  Some people build things, or organize gear, or sharpen tools.  Others type furiously on the computer, taking online fire classes.  We teach: GPS, radios, fire tactics.  A garden is taking shape.  If there's cabin fever, it's not obvious yet.

This is what I say: it could rain all summer.  Everywhere.  But it probably won't.  It's only June.  The fires will come.  But in the meantime, there are projects to do.  Plenty of them.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Old boats can cure bad moods

I gazed at the rapidly moving creek bisecting the hiking trail.  Walking through it was out of the question:  I'd be swept off my feet for sure.  There was a log I could crawl across, but it was wet from the steadily falling rain and hovered only inches above the water.  I could probably make it, but then again, nobody knew where I was.  I decided to retreat.

Feeling like a wimp, I grumpily drove away, trying to think of a way to salvage the day.  One trail was too far away, another one too long to start this late in the day.  Then I remembered the Boat Trail.

That's not the real name of the trail.  It has a name, and there is a sign at the trailhead, but I have yet to see it listed in a guidebook.  Locals go there, yet I've never run into anyone else. 

I parked at the pullout along the road.  The trail passes uncomfortably close to a house; in fact you are basically in someone's yard.  Once you scuttle past their wind chimes, you start a short, very steep climb through huckleberry bushes.  Soon you emerge at a small, quiet lake.

I skirted around the lake, looking for its best feature.  And there it was:

Years ago someone hauled an old aluminum boat up to the lake.  The last registration stickers on it are over 10 years old.  Somebody made some wooden oars to go with it.

I pushed the boat into the water and got in.  It listed to the port side in a slightly alarming fashion.  There was no way to attach the oars, so I used one in an awkward canoeing motion.  But it floated.  I listened to the sounds of the water and the wind in the trees and watched rain clouds fall over the mountains.  A curious deer came to the shore and looked at me.
After awhile I returned the boat to the shore for the next person and retraced my steps back to the car.  It hadn't turned out to be the day I had planned, but maybe it was even better.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

I heart trail running

When I was on my university's cross country team, our coach sometimes had us do a workout he called "Pigs and Farmers."  We ran to a nearby wooded area that was crisscrossed by trails.  The woodlot was forested enough that it was hard to see people on the trails, but clear enough that you could run easily. The rules were simple.  A couple people started as farmers and the rest were pigs.  Once a pig got caught by a farmer, he or she became a farmer, until there were only farmers left.  You had to run the entire time, but you could jog along a trail until a farmer saw you, and then you would sprint, attempting to elude them.  It was trail running before trail running became popular.

Recently I drove to the ski area to run on a trail that winds its way to the top of the mountain.  It has some steep sections, gaining about 2400 feet of elevation in 3.8 miles.  "I'll run for 10 minutes and then walk if it's too hard," I bargained with myself, setting off into the woods.  Nearly half an hour later I was still running, gaining ground steadily through green forest and open flowery meadows.  Finally I ran into snow and turned around and ran back down the mountain.

After decades of running, pounding the pavement doesn't appeal to me.  I no longer care about speed work or running races.  But I can't pass by a trail winding its way into the forest without thinking, I wonder what it would be like to run there?

The view from the trail I ran on (except this picture was taken in the fall)

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Scenes from a trail

It's slow in fire land, so what's a firefighter to do?  Go hiking, of course!

Stanton Lake is one of my regular hiking routes.  It's a short, easy hike that gets you into the wilderness in less than a mile.  There are usually enough people on the trail to scare away bears, but not enough to make it feel crowded. 

The trail winds through a pleasant forest.

Running shoes and a skort!

The trail enters the wilderness in less than a mile.
Hey, Bear!
Stanton Lake
The lake is peaceful.

You can always find a little beach to yourself.
Still a lot of snow in the mountains.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The (totally unscientific) hiking/running experiment

I knew there would be a lot of people on the trail to Avalanche Lake on Saturday.  The hike is short (4 miles round trip), and only gains 500 feet.  Plus the road through the national park was closed there (crews are still plowing up higher), leaving visitors with limited options.  But it's a beautiful lake, and I felt like going there, so I decided I could put up with some tourist dodging.

Starting out at an optimistic fast pace, I soon encountered a group of about 20 people in jeans, moving about one mile an hour.  I can usually make it to the lake in half an hour, so this pace was a little slow.  Surely they would let me pass?

"Excuse me," I said non-obnoxiously.  The group reluctantly let me by.  Some seemed downright affronted.  Surprisingly, the next few groups also seemed a little surly.  Did they feel judged for hiking slowly?  It was a mystery.

But what if I ran? How would people react to a runner attempting to pass? I decided to try it.  I started loping slowly up the trail.  Oddly, reactions were completely different.

"There's a runner," people warned others ahead of them.  "Let the runner by."  They even smiled and seemed cheery.  Why? 

Anyway, it was worth it when I got to the lake.  I pulled up a bench and admired the view.

Strolling back down the trail, I soon caught up to more groups of people.  Oddly, they seemed much more relaxed and quickly stepped aside to let me pass, without me even asking.  Was the lake a calming influence? Were they tired?  Who knows!  What do you think?