Saturday, May 30, 2015

Good Day on Mt. Brown

D, J and I started up the trail, billed as the steepest in the park.  We had snowshoes, but left them in the car, banking on the winter's low snowfall.  In most years,  we wouldn't be going to nearly 7500 feet this early, but this wasn't a typical year.

 We quickly reeled in a group that had left well before us; over 20 years younger, they looked somewhat intimidated as we bore down on them.  They were headed for a lower elevation lake; we quickly left them behind and began climbing.  The trail was steep, at one point gaining 1000 feet in three quarters of a mile, but not unbearable.  Last year a hiker was charged (he said) by a bear here; he claimed it kept coming despite being blasted by bear spray.  He shot it, to leave it wounded in here somewhere.  The bear was never found.

As we approached the top, a vision approached us in the form of a young man. Bare chested and muscular, with long dark hair flowing down his back and a wide smile, he bounded down the trail toward us. Alas, he was closely followed by his cute girlfriend, and we still had some climbing to do.  Snow patches appeared, and then became continuous.  We abandoned the route and headed straight uphill toward the fire lookout.

I looked out at a sea of mountains.  The lookout hadn't been staffed in years, but I imagined its former tenant, perhaps carrying a backpack full of fresh vegetables for resupply, cresting the ridge and pausing to count his or her blessings on being paid to live in such beauty.

I don't think I'd ever get used to it.  All the miles, the unrelenting steepness of it, would be worth it, every time.

Monday, May 25, 2015

How to Train 26 "Hookers"

Ha ha ha. Made you look!

Twenty-six trainees milled around the hangar.  Some looked eager, while others seemed apprehensive.  A couple were somewhat disgruntled, having landed here because they failed to keep their certification and had to take the class over.  Our goal was to teach this rowdy bunch to build cargo loads and then attach them to a hovering helicopter. 

I've been doing this for so long that it is second nature, and I forget what it's like to be new to it.  What does this weigh? Does this need to go in a separate net? Will this fall out? What do I say to the pilot? Where should I stand? How does this work?  Can I tape this? Who has the flagging? Is anyone writing this down?  But eventually all the loads were built, and the helicopter arrived, squeezing our class in between flightseeing tours over the national park.  After telling the pilot more safety information than he ever wanted to know, we were ready to start.

One trainee in each group nervously gripped the radio, while another followed a trainer out into the field where the helicopter hovered, trailing a longline with a remote hook attached.  This person used to be called the "hooker," back in the day when we didn't worry about being so PC and people weren't so easily offended.  In its infinite wisdom, the agency tried to change the name to "hitcher," but this never really caught on.  "Hooker" still persists, despite efforts to eradicate the term.

The trainee attached the cargo net to the hook and walked away, undoubtedly trying to remember all the advice: don't run! don't step over the line! look back at the load! give the pilot a thumbs up! and the helicopter rattled off to the next group. 

In the end there were no mishaps, and the pilot flew away to the park, back to the tourists.  The new "hookers" talked excitedly, happy with their new qualification.  Many of them will soon be found under a hovering helicopter on a fire or maintenance project.  Doing everything right, of course.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Danger! (Not really).

J. and I stood at the trailhead for what has been called one of America's ten most dangerous trails.  Given that the last time I hiked here I inadvertently got between a mother bear and her cubs, this might not have been the wisest choice.  Grizzlies love this mountain because huckleberries grow thick on its slopes.  On my last trip up here, my hiking companion and I collapsed in relief at the fire lookout at the end of the trail, relieved that the bears had run off instead of charging us.  The fire watcher peered out at us.  "I'm scared to hike down," he declared.  "I'm not going down unless someone brings me a gun."  Great.  He LIVED THERE ALL SUMMER and he was afraid to hike the trail!

But many years had passed since that day, and it was months too early for huckleberries.  Plus, there was another vehicle at the trailhead, indicating that another party was ahead of us. Surely they would have scared off all the bears.  We headed out, exclaiming at all the beautiful wildflowers lining the path.

Some movement on the trail ahead startled me.  A bear?  No, it was a trail runner, the apparent owner of the car below.  He bounded happily past us, carrying nothing, not even bear spray.  I admired his initiative, although I wouldn't have chosen that trail to run solo. 

Summer abruptly gave way to winter as we reached a saddle.  Three feet of snow covered the trail.  We could see the lookout a mile and a half away, but steep, sketchy snowfields blocked the way.  One set of footsteps, their owner equipped with crampons, headed out there.  We debated.  Try it or not?  We probably wouldn't die.  We could probably make it.
See the lookout?
 We hiked up the ridge and thought about it.  The views were great from there.  It started to snow a little.  In the end, we decided to turn around.  And we were OK with that.

I have a little bit of a destination focus. I always want to get to "the thing" at the end of the trail, whether it's a summit, lake, or fire lookout.  But today, even though I would have liked to reach the lookout, this ridge cloaked in snow with its views of Canadian peaks and far away lakes was a good place to stop.  It was the perfect destination.
Headed back down the trail

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Slow start

For all the talk of how this was going to be a busy fire season, not much, besides the flurry of activity two weeks ago, has happened yet.  Some engines drive to Michigan only to find an early green-up and rain.  My assistant goes to Michigan also, resigned to two weeks of sitting around with the scooper plane, but gets lucky and draws  the golden ticket:  a reassignment to Alaska.  Another minion flees to a detail in Missoula, gambling that something might happen there.

The rest of us are too busy to worry about it.  The rest of the crew comes on Monday, generating a flurry of paperwork and mandatory training.  There is always a problem child, which isn't as bad as it sounds: usually this person is the one who can't get on the computer and whose documents constantly get lost in the system.  It remains to be seen who it will be this year.

Winter is losing its grip on the high country, but three or more feet of snow still remain above 6500 feet.  J. and D.  and I hike to the top of the ski hill.  We abandon the trail when it becomes snow covered and head for the summit.  Up there, someone has set out two chairs with a view of the peaks over in the park.

Tomorrow I'll go over there and try to make it up to a fire lookout.  Based on a ranger's trail report, we may run into a lot of snow on the ridge, but we'll go as far as we can.  It'll be busy soon enough.  It's time to go for a hike, or bike ride, or trail run.  It's time to grab these moments while I can.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Oh hello, fire season. You're early!

B. and I load up the aerial ignition machine and head down the road, where we will meet a helicopter for another round of prescribed burning.  This isn't anything new, but what's different this year is how dry it is.  Everything is about a month ahead of time; in a lot of ways it seems like June already.

Property owners are still optimistically burning piles of brush.  Some escape; one homeowner manages to burn down his barn and some other outbuildings.  One fire grows to several acres, prompting calls for crews and helicopters.  Our burn tries to get away, kind of; we corral the bonus acres with water drops from the helicopter.  Informed that he needs to spend the night, the pilot looks bemused, but he's used to this, and he and the fuel truck driver head off to find a place to stay.  The next morning we rally again, but a light rain occurred overnight, and there's not much fire left.  Released, the pilot flies off toward home and a scheduled burn on another forest the next day.

Even the doubters are starting to think that we may have a busy fire season this year.  It all depends on the June rains.  If they show up, we'll spend our time in other places: California, Oregon, maybe Alaska.  If not, we will be busy here.  Not counting on it, my minions have begun to flee to other assignments.  But that's the beauty, and the curse, of a job that is so weather dependent.  You just never know.