Sunday, January 31, 2016

Hello, my name is...

In the last few years, I've discovered a hidden talent.  This is good, because if you've been fighting fire as long as I have, you sometimes wonder if you can even do anything else.

My new superpower is NAMING THINGS.  Specifically, books and babies.

There are two babies out there (Hi H. and C.!) who are not related to me but are bearing names I suggested.  These aren't common names like Jessica or Jared.  These kids have names that stand out (in a good way).

I've also contributed the titles to two books and one writing workshop.  Obviously, it would have been better if I had actually written said books or taught the workshop, but it's a start.

Somehow I've been able to hear a description of the book or event and see the big picture in order to come up with a title that describes it.  #Humblebrag (really just #Brag): I don't even need to read the book to do this.

I can also do nicknames, but I can't guarantee the target will like it.  One detailer hotshot didn't like "Hard Charger" and prefers "Stone Cold" instead, except he really is a Hard Charger and not a Stone Cold and should just accept that about himself.  (Note: I can't take full credit for this nickname because Mad Philly came up with it years ago for someone else, and I just recycled it.  Mad Philly was good at nicknames).

So if you have a manuscript languishing without a name, or an infant who is nameless, let me know!  I just need to find out how to make this talent lucrative and it can be my retirement job.

Anyone else good at naming things?
Where is this? They need me! (source)

Sunday, January 24, 2016

How to be a mountaineer (when you can't climb in the summer)

When I took an alpine mountaineering class at 25, I didn't know how much I would like it.  Although I was a strong hiker, I'd never climbed before.  Showing up for the six day class, I was intimidated.  I didn't know anyone.  The instructors, a super fit, attractive couple named Matt and Julie, stomped through deep snow toward our campsite on Mt. Baker while the students followed meekly, loaded down with tents and group climbing gear.  What have I gotten myself into, I wondered.

But I had nothing to worry about.  Everyone was friendly.  I ended up sharing a tent with an amiable Australian named Andrew.  We all made the summit on a sunny June day.  I decided I liked this mountaineering stuff.  However, I didn't anticipate how much my job would get in the way.
Mt. Baker summit. Not very high tech gear, but I made it! Note duct taped pants, from a crampon mishap.
As a wildland firefighter, you pretty much write off the months between May and October (and often, April and November) for anything other than preparing to fight fire, fighting fire, and closing up shop after fighting fire.  This is sort of a challenge, but through the years I've made it work.  Here's how:

1.  Give up on North America and probably Europe and a lot of other places (I'm not really interested in struggling up peaks in the winter). This means no Mt. Rainier for you.  This is kind of a bummer, because it means your trips will probably take longer and cost more. There probably won't be any do-overs if you don't make the summit.  But every trip will be an adventure!  (see #5 for an alternate plan).

2.   Go south. Kilimanjaro!  The volcanoes of Ecuador!  Nepal trekking peaks! Even Antarctica!  All those mountains are out there, and you'll meet people from all over the world climbing them.
At Stella Point on the way to the summit of Kilimanjaro
3.  Embrace high elevation.  I've climbed a lot higher than I would have if I had summers off and climbed domestically.  In Nepal, Mt. Rainier would be a little hill; climb Mera Peak instead and get to over 21,000'.  Impress your friends.
Summit of Mera. Mt. Everest is the highest peak in the back center of this photo.
4.  Use your hard work to fund your trips. Eight hundred or more hours of overtime in a summer is a grind.  Long days on the fireline and on wind-scoured helibases, supervising a bunch of minions, isn't always easy.  But, it does help pay for a great trip to an amazing place.
Climbing in Antarctica
And, if all else fails and there is some place you really, really want to go in June, Iceland for example:

5.  Catch your boss in a good mood and ask (mine's almost always in a good mood so it was easy)! That's how I was able to climb mountains last June for the first time since Mt. Baker so many years ago.  Hello Northern Hemisphere! I've missed you.  Where can I go next?
Climbing in Iceland in a whiteout

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Can't lose the office

I've been a firefighter for so long that sometimes it's hard to shake it when I'm not at work. It even followed me to Kilimanjaro, where I quizzed my guide about the evidence of a fire on its lower slopes, and to Patagonia, where I learned about the problem of human caused fires in the national parks, started by illegal campers.
If you've experienced the winds in Patagonia, you understand the slightly crazed look.
Since I can't escape my job, I embrace it.  On hikes, I look for helicopter landing zones, in case I should happen upon an injured person.
Here's a good spot.
 I evaluate forests for flammability. Iceland, you're safe!

Upon spying a cute cabin in the woods, my first thought is usually, it's nice, but clear out some of those trees!
Can you see the A frame in this picture? It actually survived.
What about you? Are you able to put your job aside, or does it come with you? What do you notice?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

A walk in the blog graveyard

Scrolling through the bookmarks on my computer, I see them, the abandoned blogs.  My finger hovers over the delete button.  What if  the author suddenly decides to come back and the blog comes miraculously back to life?  Sadly, this rarely happens.

Usually there is some sort of announcement.  The author has said all he or she wants to say, maybe; worse, mean comments have driven the blog offline or private.  But sometimes there's nothing:  the blog becomes open to invitees only, or just goes dark.

I can't help but wonder.  What happened to the Sunflower, the Adventurer, the Artist? Why did that blog I had just found and commented on suddenly go private?  Are they okay? Was it something innocuous, or worse?  I've often been called a "curious kitty" because I wonder about a lot of things; given that and my fascination with murder mysteries I think I would have made a good CSI.  I'm always puzzled when I ask a friend, "Don't you wonder about (insert fascinating situation here)?" and get the reply "No, not really."

I do get it.  Someone puts their life out there for everyone to see, and critical comments aren't helpful.  Plus, let's face it, most of our lives can get, well, boring at times.  Too many of my days consist of:  Go to work.  Go to the gym.  Read a book.  The end.  It's hard to think of something new to say.

I miss some of those blogs.  Even though I'll probably never meet the authors of the ones I read, I look forward to every new post, to see what's going on in that person's corner of the world.  So keep writing, people! Even if you don't know it, there's people out there reading, and wishing you well.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

How to fight fire for (more than) half your life

Every year I see the rookies, headed off to fire school with stiff new boots and nervous smiles.  I pick them up on the helicopter; they fumble with their seatbelts and take selfies with their flight helmets on.  They look so young.  The first time I stepped onto a fireline, they weren't yet born.

I could tell them how fast it goes by.  I could say that sometimes I'm almost surprised when I look in the mirror, because I feel closer to their age than mine.  But they won't believe me.  I didn't when I was in their shoes.  They want everything now: big fire seasons, better qualifications, more classes.  "I could never work at a desk," they declare, disregarding the career hotshots and smokejumpers who carry twenty years of pain in their backs, knees and shoulders.

I never planned to fight fire this long.  I was taking a break from being a park ranger, getting away from the incessant questions about whether a trail was worth it to hike or where was the bathroom.  But I never went back. 

Instead of putting down roots, I floated around the country like the wind took me there.  I drove a six wheeler on the North Slope of Alaska, staring down musk oxen in the tundra, and flew past ancient ruins closed to the public at Mesa Verde.  I spent days in remote fire lookouts in lighting storms and in snow. I fought fire in the desert, the mountains, and the rain forest.  Along the way I met a rich cast of characters: Light Bulb, Leroy, Red Squirrel, and so many more.

Where did the time go?  I remember a lot of the fires, but not all of them.  Sometimes all the years seem to blur together into a kaleidoscope of flames, the sound of tools on dirt, and nights camped out under the stars.  I'm on the downhill slide now of my career; due to firefighting being defined decades ago as a job for "young and vigorous individuals," you get kicked out of the job well below the normal American retirement age.  You can possibly come back and be hired on an as-needed basis during busy fire seasons.  I'm not sure I will want to.  It might be time then to hang up my boots, to be done with fire.

I could tell the rookies all this, about how it feels to spend years hiking steep mountains with a Pulaski in hand, to shiver on the side of a nameless hill during night shift, and how it feels to lose friends to fires and helicopter accidents. I could tell them how, despite all these years, it sometimes only feels like a handful of days.  I won't, though.  They won't believe it, not yet, not until after decades of firefighting.  Then one day, like me, they will turn around, all that history behind them, and realize: that was amazing.

Sunday, January 3, 2016


I see you, summer tourists hiking around in the national park in the glorious sunshine.  You're talking about how beautiful it is here, and look, there's a ski hill here also.  You bet that it is great here in the winter too; in fact, maybe you should MOVE HERE.

Whoa there, partner.  Yes, it's fun here in the winter; there's skiing and snowshoeing and the mountains look amazing covered in snow.  But here's a secret: It's not very sunny.

We often get long periods of inversions, where a layer of clouds sits over the valley for days.  It feels damp and oppressive.  This is when a lot of locals make a break for it, heading for Vegas or Hawaii. I drag myself to the gym, feeling surly. I know it's not the worst thing:  I spent five winters in Fairbanks, Alaska, and I'll take clouds over -40F anytime.  But I miss the sun. 

You have to climb to find it.  It's there, above the clouds, at about 6000 feet.  To get there, you'll need a snowmobile, a long day on snowshoes and skis (It's only about 3000' on the valley floor), or a ski lift.  That's the route I chose.

It was only a few degrees above 0, but there was the sun, waiting like an old friend.

I drove back down into the valley and into the clouds.  The inversion was still there; it's supposed to persist for several more days.  Somehow though, it makes me appreciate the sunshine in a way living in Hawaii never did.  You can't count on sunny winter days here.  When they show up, they're precious.  Cancel the gym, put off those errands. The sun's out!