Friday, July 31, 2015

Summer is passing me by

Let's get this out of the way. I don't love winter. I don't have much "r value" as one of my friends likes to call it, and I dread being cold. I prefer sunshine, hiking trails, and wearing shorts to being bundled up, slippery roads, and shoveling snow.

This is the wildland firefighter's dilemma, if you're like me.  Summer is the busy time, when you can make money for travel or just life. But summer is fleeting, and when you work for weeks at a time without days off, it slips away from you. You notice days getting shorter and colder temperatures at night. There's still some time left, but not a lot.

I haven't gone on many hikes this summer, or taken my kayak out more than a couple times. I wear long pants and boots in the 100 degree heat. I miss my non-fire friends.

But it could be worse. I'm outside every day. I get to fly over (and land in) Glacier National Park in a helicopter. I help save people and their property from fire. And save up for my next trip (where should I go?)

When I fly over hiking trails and lakes, I see you down there, in your tank tops and on your rafts, enjoying summer like normal people. Sometimes I wish I were there too, but I chose this path years ago. Then I think of the fire brothers and sisters I feel so close to and the amazing things I have seen and done, and it's ok.  But enjoy your time out there, people! We'll be up there in the sky looking out for you.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Reynolds Fire

We are currently supporting this firefight in Glacier National Park:

Please be careful with fire. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

The zen of large helicopter management

A lot of people couldn't handle working with a type 1 helicopter.  You're usually either waiting for a fire, or at a fire, which means you're sitting around.  A lot, like 16 hours a day a lot.  You probably won't ever see the fire, if there is one.  How do you stay sane?  I'm glad you asked, because on my last assignment I came up with quite a few ways.

1.  Start out sitting in the vehicle by the helicopter.  Do this as long as you can stand it.  When the temperature starts to approach the 100 degree mark, move to the lawn of the FBO.  Sit there like homeless people until it gets windy.  Move into the FBO and observe the glider pilots.  Why do they all dress like they're going on safari?

2.  Go for a run on a trail.  Wait till it's pretty hot, like 90 degrees.  Go farther than you meant to, and then realize it's all uphill on the way back.  Feel like you're getting heat exhaustion.  Lie in the creek until the feeling passes.

3.  Find a swimming hole.  Go swimming.  Then get an email from your mom about someone who died from a brain eating amoeba in water in the same town.  Check for symptoms. When you forget something, blame it on the amoeba.

4.  Read lots of books.  About 8 of them during a 14 day assignment is about right.

5.  Walk back and forth to fire camp.  Compete with your trainee for steps walked.

6.  Forage for chocolate milk at the caterer.

7.  Set your trainee up with the paperwork duties.  Say it all has to get done that night, then realize it's 10 pm and your trainee is getting hangry.  Feel like a bad trainer.

8.  Hang out with the pilots and mechanics and listen to stories.  It's a plus if your pilot was in Vietnam, because there aren't very many of them still flying.

9.  Do pushups and lunges every hour.  Eye your trainee, who only worked out twice in two weeks, and silently curse him because a. he's a man, and b. he's pretty young; both factors mean he will bounce back pretty quickly.

10. Keep trying to get on the internet.  Realize you can't get on the internet.  Keep trying anyway.

11.  Exclaim that you're living in squalor and clean out the vehicle, finding a bag of chips you forgot about.  Score!

12.  Figure out people's celebrity lookalikes.

13.  Chase the shade around.  Become an expert on telling time without looking at a watch.

14.  Refuse to sit in the radio trailer because you want to acclimate.  Do this so well that you get cold when it's 70 degrees out.  It's a dry heat, anyway.

15.  Become unreasonably excited about clean socks.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Shut up and drive

"It's only Day 3.  Don't lose it yet," J. said somewhat nervously. I had just dissolved into hysterical laughter after commenting, "Trees should have outlets so we could plug our phones in."  Why?  I have no idea.   I blame the driving.

Eighteen hundred miles ago, we had set out in a Ford Escape, bound for California.  Our Type 1 helicopter had come on contract early, and we had to go meet it.  J. was my trainee, an amiable snowboarder and rock climber who usually had a smile on his face.  "I'm going to eat healthy on this trip," he proclaimed as we drove off.  This resolve lasted about two hours, until he emerged sheepishly from a gas station with Chex Mix and doughnuts. 

Too late, we discovered that the air conditioning in our car didn't work; we found this out in the 100 degree Nevada desert.  We also realized that we had forgotten the two main helitack staples, a cooler and camp chairs.  Coffee and energy drinks littered the vehicle.  We giggled along with Amy Schumer on Pandora when we couldn't find any radio stations.  When we crossed into California it was a shock: all these people! where were they going and in such a hurry?

Road trips for work are a lot different than vacation ones.  We looked longingly at turnoffs for hiking trails and climbing areas, but couldn't stop.  Our meals came from gas stations.  We wore fire pants, not shorts.  Still, we made it fun, speculating about life in little towns we passed and taking a lunch break at a Patagonia outlet, where J went in to buy something for his girlfriend but instead got himself a present.  And that skirt I bought was entirely his fault, because I was waiting for him to decide between two jackets.

Eventually we arrived at our destination, only to find the next day that the helicopter was being moved somewhere else. Yep, more driving.  By then we were used to it.  We ended up driving about 3000 miles on that trip.  Maybe you saw us, two firefighters in a Ford Escape hybrid, munching on birthday cake oreos and laughing down the road.
What? We're moving again?

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Iceland: The Mountains

Vatnafjoll.  Eyajafjallajokull. Hvannadalshnjukur.  To us non-Icelandic-speaking people, these names looked like someone grabbed a bunch of Scrabble pieces and mashed them all together.  Even when the guides patiently tried to teach us: "For Eya, say I forgot my yogurt, really fast and kind of mumble," it still proved impossible to pronounce the names.  Nevertheless, we were determined to climb them.

On each mountain it was like stepping back into winter.  Rain, snow, and wind of near Patagonian proportions made stopping unappealing.  On Vatnafjoll, a warm up peak, we had to turn around, defeated by the weather, and retreat to hiking trails lower down. 

We weren't even supposed to climb Eyajafjallajokull, the volcano made famous by its eruption in 2010 which shut down air travel for awhile.  Our original objective was a smaller peak, but Iceland had a record snow year, and we couldn't get to it.  So Eya it was.  We trudged up the peak in whiteout conditions, in two rope teams: I was following Kamil, a handsome Polish mountain guide, when the clouds suddenly parted to show the summit.  "Be careful here," Kamil said as he kicked steps in the steep snow.  "We're here," he said, stopping, my footsteps the second ones on the top.

Hvannadalshnjukur, the highest mountain in Iceland, was next.  6921' isn't high for a mountain, but it is when you start near sea level.  I looked down from my hostel bunk at 4 am at my roommates, who were slowly gathering their gear.  It would be over 12 hours before we would return.

Our guides hastily conferred in the parking lot.  "We need to take snowshoes," they decided; we all then had crampons, trekking poles, ice axes, and snowshoes hanging off our packs.  It started to snow as we hiked up the approach trail, keeping a steady pace and reeling in a guided group of guys from New York.  We climbed in a white world, our guide halting at one point in the summit crater to check his GPS.  Climbing in these conditions was strangely disorienting.  At times it was hard to tell if we were actually ascending.  I concentrated on following C., a marathon runner from England, and walked in her footsteps until she stopped walking, and we were on the summit.
The next day was clear and sunny, and we had the chance to actually see the mountains we climbed.
We gazed at the summits that had been hidden from us while we stood upon them, and we were happy.  Anyone can climb a mountain in the sunshine.  We had climbed them in snow, rain, and wind, and done it faster than most groups.  I had just climbed on my 7th continent.  It was a good day.