Monday, May 28, 2018

This is why we can't have nice things

It was a magical place, known only to locals and park employees.  There wasn't a real trail to it.  Whenever we hiked to it, my friends and coworkers Beth, Laurie, Jim and Mark, we would look around to make sure no tourists were passing by on the main trail.  Then we'd duck into the woods and make the short climb.

It was called Poet's Table.  About 50 years ago, a man calling himself the Vagabond Poet carried a table and chairs up there and nestled them in a serene spot among granite cliffs and ledges.  Ever since then, people have hiked up there and filled journals and notebooks with poems, essays and thoughts.

I don't remember what I wrote there, but I have a picture of myself sitting at the table writing away.  I spent two summers working at Custer State Park, when I was 20 and 21, and Poet's Table was one of my favorite places.  After my friend Ron was killed in a motorcycle accident, I hiked up there, my heart hurting.  A butterfly landed on my shoulder as I walked, and stayed there as I reached the table.  I like to think it was him.

My friends loved the place, too.  They would sprawl on the rocks, looking for mountain goats.  A free spirited couple got married up there.  It was one of those places I thought would never change.

This past Saturday, two women hiked up to the table and sawed it in half.  Then they carried the pieces down the trail and put them in their truck.  Another hiker saw them and took a picture.  When asked why they did it, the women said that nobody was taking care of the place, and it would be better now.
The perps
Apparently the suspects have turned themselves in and will probably be charged with something like vandalism.  The park has retrieved the pieces of the table (and it sounds like they stole the chairs too) and plans to put them back.

It won't be the same.  Since it's national news, more people know about Poet's Table now and will try to find it.  Maybe more vandals will be among them.  Some commenters on a Facebook post about it scoffed, "It's just a table."  It wasn't just a table to me and to my coworkers.

I have lost a little more faith in humanity.  Why do people do these things?

Friday, May 25, 2018

A Prisoner in Paradise

K. is pretty quiet, which is often a good quality in a crewmember.  When he speaks, people tend to listen, because he usually comes up with good one liners that stick in your head.

Some of us were chatting yesterday about people who live here but have never been to some of the spectacular sites that tourists from all over the world pay lots of money to come see.  Sometimes we get days off in the summer, or can escape after work to the national park just a few miles away, but it's harder for some people.

K. came to us from a hotshot crew.  During the summer, these firefighters must dispatch to fires within 2 hours of being called, even if they are on days off.  They have to stay in cell service all the time, or risk missing the assignment, which is not looked upon favorably.  Most of the trails and mountains around here are in areas outside of cell service.

He listened wistfully to our conversation.  "You're a prisoner in paradise," he declared.

And it's kind of true.  Flying over in the helicopter, or driving down the road en route to a fire, we see happy vacationers rafting, climbing, kayaking, and heading out on the trails.  Although we usually get one or two days off after 14 days of work, sometimes we are just too tired to muster up the energy to do much of anything, and neglected house and yard chores can take precedence. Or, unluckily, it rains.  We usually try, though, or else summer passes us by.

Most people compensate.  They are backcountry skiers, or they travel during the winter.  We snowshoe into the popular summer places and march up trails in the spring as far as we can go until stopped by snow or avalanche danger.

Usually  the guys who spray noxious weeds stop by our base at the end of the day.  When asked what they did that day, one of them will invariably say, "Doing the people's work."

In the end, although we might be prisoners in paradise, we know we are providing a needed service.  And we get to sleep on a nameless ridge in the middle of the wilderness with a million stars overhead, putting out a small fire with a couple friends.  We get to fly over places that nobody gets to see.  That's what we will remember after the summer is over.
My summer view of life

Monday, May 21, 2018

Staying Here

I looked at the detail announcement.  It was for a temporary promotion to a grade higher than mine.  It looked like it would lead to an actual job.  The description of the duties was somewhat vague, but I was sure I could do them.  It would mean a higher hourly wage.  I probably wouldn't have to supervise anyone.  The announcement even hinted at the possibility of working "virtually," which could mean a cubicle in the closest agency office, but could also mean the holy grail of office working: working from home!  No more commute! Strolling to the kitchen instead of packing a lunch! Seeing my cats ALL DAY!

I started to fill out the application.  But I kept hesitating.  My current job definitely has drawbacks: lots of supervision responsibilities, working lots of hours, and fairly low pay for what we have to do and risk.  But even though this opportunity eliminated these issues, I didn't feel passionate about it.  I already spend a lot of time at the computer; I didn't want more.  I didn't want more meetings or conference calls.  And I just can't give up the best part of my job:
Hole in the Wall Basin, Glacier National Park.
In the end, I didn't apply.  And I don't regret it.  It's been hard at times to do what I do, but it's also been amazing. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Lost and Found

On a powder day in February the doctor left his friends at the top of one of the ski lifts.  He wanted to do one run through the backcountry, out of bounds, he told them.  None of them wanted to come; it was getting late, there was a storm expected later.  But he skied there all the time.  A lot of people do: they drop down into one of the back bowls, and then it is a short hike back up to a lift and civilization.

But the doctor never came home.  A blizzard blew in that night, a big one.  Cars were stuck in drifts all over the valley.  Temperatures dropped.  Feet of snow fell in the mountains.

They started looking as soon as they could: a helicopter, expert skiers, dogs.  The weather was against them, but they went anyway.  They wouldn't stop looking for him until they found him, the sheriff said.

They had to stop for awhile, of course.  Time went on, and there was no sign of him.  More blizzards dumped snow; clouds covered the hills.  He probably went in a tree well, people thought, and was buried.  Everyone knew he was out there somewhere.  He wasn't the type to run away and start a new life.  He had a family and a job he enjoyed.  In the valley, he was beloved.

I didn't know him.  I had met his wife years ago but didn't really know her.  But our community is a small one.  A tree in a downtown park became a rallying point.  A bucket full of pens, note cards, and yarn hung from one of the branches.  People wrote notes of hope and love and hung them on the tree.  The family visited and left mini Snickers bars with a note asking those who left cards to take one of the treats.  It was Jon's favorite snack, they said.

I left a note.  Months went by.  The search resumed on sunny, warm days.  Three days ago, word came: the search for the doctor was over, after almost three months had gone by.  Apparently he had been caught in a small avalanche the day he had gone missing.  Jon could now come home to his family.

Sometimes life isn't easy in this mountain town.  It can get overrun by tourists.  It is expensive.  Winters can be long and cold.  But when it matters, people come together.  They will leave messages hanging on a tree in the middle of March, saying how much they care.  They will look for you if you are missing.  They will try to find you and bring you home.
Photo by Peregrine Frissell/Daily Interlake

Monday, May 7, 2018

Hello Spring, are you there?

It seems like summer is on the way.  The minions (seasonal employees) are all hired.  A few fires, caused by people burning brush and grass, have happened lately.  We even burned the grass around the base, racing greenup to get it done.
But even though there have been some warm days in the valley, in the mountains the snow still clings to the hills.  The rivers are running high, and flooding is predicted.

I decided to hike a trail that is usually mostly snow free by now.  It climbs steeply up a south facing ridge, gaining 2500' of elevation in 2.5 miles.  Having forgotten my ice axe and trekking poles, I optimistically tackled the first switchbacks, which were dry.  But soon I ran into solid snow, and started kicking steps up steep snowfields.  I noticed bear tracks and looked around, but saw no animals or people on the open ridge.
The top seemed like a long way away.
This picture doesn't make it look very steep, but it was.
But I finally made it to the top and the site of a former lookout.  It was starting to melt out, but no flowers yet.
Spring always comes, but some years it takes longer than others.

Is it spring where you are?