Monday, November 26, 2018

There's something about a trail

There's something about a trail.  I see one from the helicopter and, momentarily abandoning my mission of looking for fires, try and find out where it goes.  I glimpse trailheads when driving, and wonder what lake or ridge they might access. I try to mark these places in my memory, in case I return.

To me, these winding paths through the forest, prairie or mountains signify possibility.  Adventure, discovery, solitude...any of these could be waiting out there.  Trails have mystery, while roads don't.

I've never regretted setting foot on a trail.  While I've gotten temporarily lost, gotten minor injuries, and flirted with hypothermia at times, in the end I've always been glad I took the path rather than the road. I just wish I had time to take more of them.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Winter in my bones

I dragged out the snow shovels in a surly mood.  Now I understood why old people moved to Florida or Arizona.  It wasn't even that cold yet and I couldn't get warm.  I felt chilled to the bone.

I know people who love winter.  They should live in the polar regions, because they dislike the heat and rejoice at the first snowfall.  Those people aren't me.

I have a complicated relationship with winter at best.  I know it's the price I pay for living in a mountain town where the nearby peaks still have glaciers.  Sometimes winter and I get along okay, especially on bluebird days where the snow is all sparkly.  Other times when it's gray and gloomy and the roads are covered in ice, I think of the winter I spent in Hawaii and wonder what I was thinking to leave.

One of my neighbors hardly ever comes outside, even in summer.  I see her sometimes walking her dog to the mailbox, but most of the time she is indoors.  In winter, I go for weeks without seeing her.  Her car won't move out of her carport.  If she enjoys being inside, I won't judge. But that won't be me.

So I buy a ski pass, and find my snowshoes in the garage.  I look for northern lights while I sit in the hot tub.  And yesterday I hiked to a lake in the mountains, one that I love but avoid in the summer due to crowds.

It was about 20 degrees.  The trail only had a skiff of snow and ice, and the lake was surprisingly not yet frozen.  A few people were there, better prepared than I was with hot drinks and blankets.  The cliffs around the lake looked beautiful with a dusting of snow.  It was a completely different place than it was in the summer.

I will always love summer more than winter.  I love just going outside, without having to prep for it with mittens, hats, snow tires, and everything else that goes along with it.  I love a summer trail that is alive with flowers and birds.  But I've learned to live with winter, and I'll get along with this one too.  At times I'll even like it.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Boss Benefits

One of the perks of being the boss is that I can kick my employees out of the front seat of the helicopter if the mission is particularly good, the pilot is cool, or we are going someplace especially scenic.  Sorry/not sorry, they get plenty of lucrative assignments as it is and I put in a lot of time to get to where I am, cleaning lots of outhouses and pulling a lot of weeds along the way.

So when some filmmakers came to the area to take video for a documentary called "Your Forests Your Future," my minions didn't even attempt to ask to go.  Heh heh.  They knew I'd be all over it.

The filmmakers are two brothers with an ambitious goal to visit all the National Forests in the country.  They jumped excitedly into the helicopter, toting cameras and a drone.  I was along for the ride, helping them with their equipment and making sure they operated safely around the aircraft.  But let's be honest: I was also there for the experience.

Fall colors

Gunsight Mountain
Chinese Wall, Bob Marshall Wilderness
Frosty lookout
Sometimes I forget that it's really unusual to get to do this: to fly over two wildernesses in one day, stopping in at a remote backcountry station and a fire lookout, seeing herds of elk and snow covered mountains from above.  Then I remember, and I feel incredibly grateful that my hard work has led me here.

Friday, November 2, 2018


Listen: people go missing every day.  If you don't believe this, search "missing people" or "missing hikers." A counselor friend of mine did this.  Horrified, he had to stop.  It happens all the time.

So why am I still thinking about Connie? I don't know her.  I haven't been to the area where she vanished.  But her story has grabbed ahold of me and it won't let go.

Connie Johnson was a woman who loved the wilderness.  She came west in search of adventure, and became a wilderness ranger for the Forest Service, hiking and camping on her own for over 20 years.  She became a mentor for younger people just starting out in their careers, teaching them about navigating in the woods and about tools like crosscut saws.  When she retired she became a camp cook for an outfitter, still hiking in her beloved wilderness at age 76.

Connie vanished from the camp around October 3; the hunters were not there yet, so nobody knows when for sure.  Her gun and coat were left in camp; her dog was gone as well.  The search was extensive, with people on foot and horseback covering all the places she might have gone.  A friend of Connie told me she would have hated having the helicopters working low over those wild places, even if they were looking for her, but they were out there too; a pilot I know was flying.  No trace was found.

Three weeks later, Connie's dog Ace showed up, 15 miles from the camp, back at the trailhead where he and Connie had hiked in.  Thin but fine, he was taken back to the woods, hoping he might lead the searchers to her.  He has not.

Where was Ace?  Did he wander off, and roam the forest for three weeks until he found his way out? Did he stay with Connie after she had an injury or medical problem, until he finally had to leave her resting place?

And where did Connie go?  It haunts me.  I hope she is at peace, somewhere in the wilderness she loved so much and wanted to protect, and that the land holds her gently.  I hope her last hike was a good one, now that she is at the end of her trail.  Hike on, Connie.  Your memory lives on.
Ace and Connie