Monday, August 26, 2019

Secret places

The lake isn't truly unknown.  There's no trail to it, but it is on the map, without a name.  There is a fire ring there, and locals undoubtedly visit more than I know.  It's not in any guidebooks, and it shouldn't be.  The delicate alpine vegetation around it could be so easily trampled, and the slow growing trees cut for firewood.

I went there with someone who had wanted to visit it for years.  Some of us tagged along, drawn by his description of the sparking lake he had seen while high above it.  The trail was steep, and some of the hikers were fast.  It started raining before we even got to the trailhead.  Still, the huckleberries were plenty, and the miles went by fast, until we saw the lake below us.

We carefully made our way down a boulder field into a magical land.  A second unnamed lake gleamed around the corner and a hundred feet below the first one.  It rained, the sun came out, and it rained again.  We lingered, reluctant to go.

One of the hikers related her friend's recent experience on a popular trail in the national park close by.  "She said they saw 500 people on the trail," she said.  FIVE HUNDRED.  It seems exaggerated, but possible, and even if they actually saw half that number, it is staggering.

Our little group was alone.  I was grateful.  Some places should remain relatively unknown, just discussed among friends. not broadcast on social media or written about in guidebooks.  Sleep in peace, little lake.  I'm so glad I saw you, and I'll keep your secret.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The (not) lonely fire lookout

I knew when I agreed to staff the lookout for a couple of days that it wouldn't be a true wilderness experience.  It was reached by a short 2.5 mile hike, and wasn't too far from a popular mercantile that draws crowds in the summer.  It was a lookout, though, so I couldn't turn it down.

Some people work at fire lookouts that are very busy.  They are more like rangers than the stereotypical, solitary fire watcher deep in the forest.  They are better people than I am.  To me, the whole point of living in a small glass house to look for fires is to be alone.

I peered out of the tower.  Hopefully it was too early for the first people to arrive, but I saw something moving down below.  A deer, I thought, but then looked closer.  A cinnamon colored black bear was wandering around in the meadow.  I watched it for awhile, until it turned and waddled down the trail.

Soon, hikers arrived, accompanied by dogs.  There really weren't that many, maybe 10 in all, but their visits were spread out throughout the day.  A sign at the base of the tower invited them up, so I showed them around, and had the kids look through the firefinder.  They were all interesting, and I wasn't annoyed to see them arrive, but I looked forward to sunset.

At night the tower was mine.  I watched the sun go below the horizon and the other lookouts I could see on the other mountaintops vanish into the dark.  I sat on the catwalk and looked at the lights far below.  I didn't have to talk or answer questions.  This was why I had come here.

I'm not against people climbing lookouts to talk to the person there; I've done it many times myself.  It just wouldn't be the job for me.  I need the remote towers, the ones that see maybe five people a summer.  I wouldn't be as crazy as Jack Kerouac on Desolation Peak, but I might end up a little bit feral.

On my last day a herd of visitors and dogs arrived, along with the regular lookout.  I packed up and headed down the trail.  Even though it hadn't been the solitary experience I was used to at other towers, it was still worth every minute, and I would miss my house in the sky.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Going back

I've worked and lived in some incredible places, but once I leave, I rarely return.  Usually this is simply because there are so many wonderful places yet to see.  But sometimes I'm afraid to go back: afraid to see crowds where there was once solitude,  hotels where we used to camp, places now ruined by discovery.  Hordes of people now trek to the solitary table set in the rocks that once was the haunt of locals only; vandals scratch their names in the walls of fire lookouts; would-be "influencers" stomp on fields of poppies to take the perfect photo.

On my one day off, I ventured hesitantly to a trail I used to love.  It was only two hours away, near a town where I used to live, yet I hadn't hiked it in eight years.  I didn't know what I would find.  Would there be room to park at the end of the dirt road? Would there be a steady stream of hikers where I used to see nobody? I anxiously approached the trailhead.

Only two cars were parked there.  One had a strand of spiderweb on it, indicating that its owner was probably out on an overnight backpack trip.  I felt better as I headed through the forest.  It was a hot day, yet I saw nobody at the two sparkly lakes I passed.

I climbed to a high pass and around a corner to view another lake in the distance.  There was nobody in sight.  There were parts of the trail I didn't remember, but others came back to me like I had just hiked it the day before.  So much in my life had changed, and yet this place was still the same.

 I hiked back down.  The trail was quiet; one of the cars was gone.  I took a last look in the rear view mirror as I drove away.  This magical place hadn't changed.  I was grateful.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Hiking for dollars

Firefighting has ruined hiking for some people I know. Because in their everyday jobs they plod along wearing hot clothing and carrying heavy, uncomfortable packs, going for a hike on days off is the last thing they want to do. 

I definitely get it.  Although I love flying, I wouldn't go on a helicopter tour on vacation.  But if the opportunity to hike while at work arises, I'll still jump at the chance.

The helicopter touched down on a remote, trailless ridge in the national park.  I had been excited to go there with the radio technicians, thinking we were landing next to a fire lookout.  I was disappointed to learn that the lookout was 900 feet below, and all that elevation was lost in less than a half mile.

"I kind of want to go," I said to the pilot.  "So do I!" he said.  So we set off cross country down the ridge.

Even though we then had to scramble back up those 900 feet, it was worth it.

Two days later, a different radio tech wanted someone to help scout a location for a radio repeater.  "I'll go!" I volunteered.  As we clawed our way up what I later called The Rocks Of Death and bashed through The Brush of Doom, it was still better than being in the office.  We emerged on an airy ridge.

Although it was later determined to be too dangerous to move the repeater there due to the approach technicians would have to take hiking to it, it wasn't a wasted day for me.  I got to hike and see views most people never see, without having to deal with a fire at the same time.

Have a project that requires a hike? Just ask. I'll go.