Friday, October 30, 2015

Late season hike

Sometimes it seems everyone hunts where I live.  Meetings are scheduled to avoid hunting season; people grumble if they have to attend a training class during that time.  Some hikers flee to the national park until the hunters vacate the woods.  But I wanted to take advantage of the unusually long autumn; I grabbed an orange hoody and headed for my favorite hiking area.

It was the second day of the rifle season, and hunters strolled the road wearing blaze orange and toting guns.  However, there were only a few hikers in the parking lot.   None of them wore orange, but I hurried past them, not about to be mistaken for an elk.

The trail I chose climbed quickly to a pass and into a basin studded with lakes.   There was about an inch of new snow.

I walked along a ridge above the clouds.  Nobody had come this way, except a few deer.

I ended up at Clayton Lake, a quiet, wild place.
I didn't see any other hikers or hunters in 13 miles.  Snow will settle in this basin soon, keeping out all but the most determined.  The deer and mountain goats will have the lakes to themselves.  Maybe I can sneak up here again before winter takes over.  If not, the trail will be here next summer, waiting.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

An Accidental Traveler

The most common question I get this time of year from people who don't know me well is, "Sooo...where are you going this year?"  I've somehow acquired a globe trotting reputation, which I don't think is quite deserved; I didn't travel out of the country between 2007 and 2012, for example.  They seem really invested in the answer.  Probably disappointingly, I usually say, "I don't know!"

And I usually don't.  This year, an unexpected new furnace has cost as much as a trip to say, Bhutan, and a plethora of work meetings and commitments litter my calendar, coupled with a late fire season.  But even in normal years, I usually don't plan too far ahead.  On the ship to Antarctica, I discovered that many people had been planning this trip for years, and bought their tickets a year in advance.  On the other hand, I bought mine a month before I went (and paid half price: sorry/not sorry).  In fact, most of my trips have been, well, sort of accidental.
Antarctic peninsula
Not that I somehow stumbled upon a free ticket (how great would that be?) but instead, most of my travel ideas have originated from a night in front of the computer thinking, I need to get out of here. Where should I go?  which turned into, That Facebook friend's photos of Patagonia are really beautiful.  Maybe I should go there.  Let's check Orbitz.  Three weeks from now? Sure!
Beautiful Patagonia.  Go!!!
My job takes the summers away, but it gives me the winters.  I probably wouldn't have been to half the places I've been if I had a "normal" job.  I would have stayed closer, but that's not really possible.  Climbing Mt. Rainier, hiking the PCT, touring National Parks, are all pretty much out for me.  So I  chose Tanzania, Argentina, Nepal, Ecuador, and all the other unforgettable places I've seen.  And all are basically chosen at the last minute, based on a picture, a book, or another traveler's story.
I loved Nepal
What's next? I may disappoint the vicarious travelers who quiz me about my wanderings (see furnace, above).  But you never know.  Excuse me while I check the weather in Santorini....

Sunday, October 18, 2015


"The helicopter is going to be released at end of shift," I text my minion.  His response is swift: "Happy dance!" he replies.

It's not that we don't like the helicopter, our pilots, or our mechanics.  We love flying and seeing the country from the air.  But we're tired.  It's been almost non-stop for over months, this fire season, and it's not really over yet: there's still fires out there, and our type 1 helicopter got reactivated and sent to Texas.  Days off were few and far between.  I have more overtime than the local hotshot crew does. 
Still, we haven't had widespread rain.  The 80,000 acre fire on the forest, among others, still creeps around.  I wait for someone to say there's been a mistake, as the pilot departs for the last time from the helipad. But it appears that he will make it out of our airspace.  As he has been battling a flu-like illness for three weeks, he is undoubtedly relieved also.  Since we will have a new contract next year, we may not see him or this helicopter again.

Autumn blazes across the mountains.  Sometimes this transition is hard: going from working 10-16 hours a day, seven days a week, to a more normal schedule.  This year it's somewhat overwhelming.  I don't feel like doing much of anything for awhile.  But I do make it to the park before the road closes.
The "experts" are calling for another dry winter.  I gamble and buy a ski pass, because really, who knows.  We could be sitting in the rain staring glumly at the helicopter all next summer.

Change is in the air.  It's time to go out and meet it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Lookout Diairies, Part Two

I wake in the middle of the night.  The tower is shaking.  The wind is attacking it with such ferocity that the door flies open.  I hear mysterious crashing noises as things get blown off the deck.  The clouds are spitting snow.  It has turned from autumn to winter in just a few hours.

Irrationally I imagine the tower collapsing in the storm, even though it has stood since 1963 and must ride out even more severe weather.  Still, I put on more layers of clothes in case I have to evacuate, and wait till morning.  The wind seems alive.  It is impossible to sleep.

The temperature in the cabin is in the 30s in the morning; it is colder outside.  I record weather observations, ducking back inside after each measurement: temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity.  The thermometer we use doesn't go below 30; we don't usually fight fire when it is that cold.  The wind meter only goes to 70 mph; the white ball that measures gusts disappears at the top of the scale.  I can't measure rainfall; the water has frozen in the bucket.

I start a fire in the woodstove.  There will be no fire watching today; visibility is about a half mile.  Curiosity drives me out of the tower; the trees are covered in white rime.  Nobody talks on the radio.  I ply the stove with wood, but it never really gets warm inside.  I feel like the only person in the world.
Rime on the trees
Around sunset, the wind dies down.  I escape the tower and run around, relieved.  The storm has passed, and the next day is bright and warm.  I hike the ridge and look at the fires.  I learn later that while the storm was battering the lookout, it was dead calm in the valley.

On the fourth day, I pack up.  I go down the stairs for the last time and start down the trail.  I take one last look at the little house on the mountain that sheltered me from the storm.  Then the trees hide it and I hike on, past the snow survey markers, across the benches and farther down, back to my life in the valley.
Last morning at the lookout

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Lookout Diaries, Part One

I stomp up the trail carrying 30 pounds in my backpack.  For some reason, I turned down a helicopter flight to hike instead.  For some reason, this trail always seems endless.  But I'm getting paid to do it, so I continue on, through the forest and past the "Tired?" sign that someone years ago nailed to a tree, through the snow survey area, to the false summit and then the final push to the fire lookout.

The regular lookout sits patiently by her full backpack, ready to flee down the trail for four days off.  She points out a few fires, then says tentatively, "please don't kill my grouse."  I look at her uncomprehendingly.  "The guys all want to kill them, and they've been up here since they were chicks," she explains.

After reassuring her that I would never kill her grouse, she bounds down the trail, and I'm left in silence.  I prowl the lookout, scanning the maps.  I gaze at the fires.  I make tea.  Finally I launch myself out of the building, restless, and hike up the next ridge.  I go to sleep when it gets dark, and wake up when the sun rises.
Sunset at the lookout
The next day is one of those fall days you hope for, crisp and clear and lovely.  I hike around and gather firewood, because it's in the 20s in the mornings.  Between looking at fires, I read books.  I talk to Dispatch twice a day on the radio; other than that, I see and speak to nobody.  I go to sleep under a bowl of stars.
One of the fires
I suddenly wake in the middle of the night.  Everything has changed....


Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Back to the house in the sky

I just spent four magical days up here.

Getting paid to be up there, even.

I'm on assignment in Idaho now and will write more when I return.