Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Lost Boys of Minchumina: A firefighting mystery

The float plane banked over the fire camp, making sure his passengers could see their route to it from the lake where he would drop them off.  The two men said they understood.  When they were signed up to fight this fire, picked up basically off the street as many firefighters were in those days, they had claimed they were college students from the east coast, in Alaska on vacation.

The plane left them on the shore of remote Lake Minchumina with two sleeping bags and a few other supplies. Then they vanished.

Two weeks later, the two men stumbled into fire camp.  They had gotten lost, they said.  They had survived by eating frogs and drinking creek water. 

The people at fire camp were suspicious.  The two men looked far too healthy, clean and well-fed to have been wandering in the wilderness for so long.  Where had they been?  Had they found a cabin  stocked with food and stayed there until the supplies ran out, or until they wanted to return to civilization?   Had they seen the fire on the way in, thought "nope" and concocted a plan?  Nobody knew for sure, but the two were soon sent packing.

One of my coworkers in Alaska discovered the story while transferring historic fire files from paper to electronic records.  A letter, written by one of the firefighters, was asking for payment for the two weeks the two had been allegedly lost and wandering the tundra.  Intrigued, my coworker dug further, finding that one of the men had indeed been registered at an Ivy League university; there was no record of the other.  Reimbursement was denied.

The real story is lost in the mists of time, over sixty years ago.  What really happened to the two would-be firefighters? Were they truly lost, or living out an Alaskan adventure?

Alaska fire scar and fire in the distance

Friday, December 16, 2016

The first rule of book club...

Just kidding! There are no rules at my book club.  I've heard of some who take it very seriously, who take notes, and vote what to read.  That's not us.

We go wherever someone volunteers to host.  Someone will email a title of a good book, and we say OK and read it.  You can bring an elaborate homemade dessert, or pick something up from Costco and we will eat it, either way.  You can drink wine, or not.  If you didn't finish the book, or didn't even (gasp!) read it, that's OK too.

We meet once a month, give or take.  If someone can't make it, there's always next time.  We recently exchanged "white elephant" books, which meant someone ended up with a book on "How to Be Elegant."  We tend to laugh a lot and eat too much cheese bread.

It's really not about the books at all, although that's what brings us together on a cold night in December.  It's about this little community that forms for a few hours once a month, where we talk about work, life, and yes, books too.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Firefighters in snow

There are some places where people fight (or light) fires all year round.  Other places, like the Grand Canyon, have the possibility of rescues every month of the year.  The place where I work is not one of those places.

When the temperature is below zero and the snow is piling up like it is now, you'd expect the wildland firefighters would be deep into hibernation like the bears are.  The seasonals might be, but the rest of us are still here.

What are we doing, anyway? I know I've addressed this before, but this is one of the most common questions I get, after "Do you fly the helicopter?" No. Nobody wants to see (or ride in) that.  I don't really blame people for asking.  It used to be that you could theoretically shoot a cannon through a fire office in January and not hit anyone.  But climate change and increasing bureaucracy means that we are here, working.  When T. got the job equivalent to mine on an adjacent forest, he negotiated a schedule that would let him have a few months off in the winter.  It worked for maybe one year, after which he was heard to exclaim, "I don't know why I thought I could do that!"

Winter is when all the paperwork happens.  Burn plans, lesson plans for classes, aviation plans, proposals for new programs, the choosing of helicopter vendors for the next four years.  People can be heard clicking through screens, taking their mandatory computer security training, whistleblower refreshers, and everything else that, if not completed, allegedly removes your computer access.  One of the detailers walks back and forth between the buildings with papers.  What is he actually doing?  Maybe nothing, but he looks busy.  He has paper, it must be legit.
Image from
It's also hiring season, in which we get our referral lists, complain about our referral lists, and try to track down potential employees who are off doing something fun like surfing in Costa Rica. The glacial pace of this process means it takes several weeks and provides a good excuse for lack of apparent busyness.  When asked, "What are you working on?" if you say "HIRING" in an aggrieved tone, the other person usually moves on quickly.

Of course, it's not all paperwork.  Sometimes I help plow snow, which means that I sit in the plow truck ostensibly poised to jump out and open gates or shovel hard-to-reach areas, but which usually consists of me drinking cocoa and saying helpful things like, "Why are you plowing this area, nobody uses it in the winter."  Our base gets a lot of snow, so there's always shoveling to be done so I can tunnel into it.  Mice invade my office and must be stopped.  Dangerous icicles need to be removed before they fall on the heads of hopeful job applicants who stop by out of the blue, assuming we are always there.

There is also a plethora of meetings, in which important topics are discussed, projects are assigned, and it seems like there should be cookies, but there never is.  The best thing about these meetings is that when someone asks what you are working on, you can say "HIRING" in your most martyr like tone, and everyone quickly moves on.

Is there a lull in your job, or do you do something different in different seasons?  Do you have a task like hiring that is so understood to be tedious and time consuming that all you have to do is mention it for others to stop asking what you're doing?

Saturday, December 3, 2016


Living near a national park and surrounded by national forest, my hiking companions and I see a lot of people doing things that are, well, questionable.  Things like starting off on a 12 mile trail at 4 pm with one plastic water bottle, hiking in camouflage in hunting season, and trail running solo in known grizzly habitat in the early morning.  Many times, people stop us to ask what trail they are on and where it goes, as if they don't even see the trailhead signs.

I thought of those people the other day as we drove towards a trailhead.  I thought we probably resembled them, with our optimistic thinking that didn't include snow blocking the road. Snowmobilers undoubtedly thought so, looking curiously at us as they unloaded their machines.  As we retreated to an unknown trail we had seen on the way up the road, late season hunters drove past, probably noting our lack of guns.
Hmm...time to turn around.  Only snowmobile tracks from here.
As we hiked up the hill in the snow, I thought about the difference between being adventurous and being reckless.  It's a fine line, and many times I've crossed it: going out unprepared for conditions, stubbornly pressing on when the weather deteriorated, becoming temporarily lost while not paying attention to landmarks.

The trail we ended up on
 But while we may have seemed clueless, that actually wasn't the case.  We all carried extra warm clothes.  J. had firestarters and a headlamp in his pack.  We had snowshoes, although we never used them.  Like Everest climbers, we set a turn around time so we wouldn't be coming down near dusk when hunters might be around, desperate to get a deer on the last day of the season.  We had topo maps.  So maybe the difference between the two is having a backup plan.
Snowy trail
We didn't get to the fire lookout we were hoping to hike to.  We didn't even get out of the deep woods.  But a day outside with friends is always worth it, even if it didn't quite go as planned.