Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Embracing the lull

"This is winter," I tell my minion, who normally doesn't work this late but who is helping out since my assistant took another job.  "I don't need to know where you are at every minute of the day," I continue.  "Also, this is a good time to get any doctoring or dentistry done."

He is adjusting, but I can tell it's a little difficult.  He is used to the frantic pace of summer, or the shoulder seasons, when we still have crewmembers around to supervise and a finite amount of time to get things done.  He still attacks projects immediately, which means he is now stuck with the less interesting tasks, such as the dreaded "updating employee folders" and "required online training."

We had a slow fire season this year, followed by a slow fall.  It doesn't always happen this way: often, the seasonals depart while we are still cleaning gear, maintaining trucks, and even fighting fire.  Sometimes temporary hiring starts in November, with its accompanying challenges of tracking down applicants and persuading them to decide what they want to do six months from now.

Not this year.  There isn't even enough snow to shovel.  Instead, we start on aerial ignition plans that we wouldn't normally tackle until at least January.  The hotshots puzzle how to transform one of their buggies into a reindeer for a city parade.  J. buys a red plastic bucket for the nose, and then agonizes that it's too small.  "Come look at it," he says.  "Does it look stupid? It looks stupid!" I reassure him that it doesn't, while S. regrets that he has committed to making some antlers.  They ponder the wisdom of driving the buggy, covered in brown paper, through the notoriously windy canyon on the way to town.

A stream of job applicants show up at our offices, hoping for a seasonal position next summer.  They leave either encouraged or with their hopes and dreams crushed, depending on the supervisor.  The smart ones start building a plan to eventually land a job, while the less intelligent ones do things like call our cell phones on Saturday.  Not having our lists till January, we can't tell them much, but we appreciate their earnestness.

I'm all right with the lull.  We don't get a lot of them.  Some years there are fire assignments all year round, a plethora of workshops, classes to take and teach.  January will be busy, with seasonal and permanent hiring happening at the same time.  Managers, energized by holiday time off, will fill the calendar with meetings.  Even my minion, eyeing the snowline on the ski hill, is starting to get used to it.
Image from Imgur


Wednesday, November 20, 2019

How to be seen

A helicopter is my office.  I sit in one for many hours every summer, looking for fires, landing spots, and occasionally, people.

People get lost a lot.  There are those who would like to believe that it is some vast conspiracy involving the land management agencies when someone goes missing in the wilderness.  As a veteran of many searches, I can tell you that is impossible.  With all the people involved in search, such a conspiracy would never happen.  Someone would talk.  Also these agencies don't have the time, the motive, or the budget to "disappear" people.  Lastly,  search and rescue personnel want to find you.  They put their lives on hold and at risk to look for people they don't even know.  But they have to be able to see you first.

A lot of lost people, when found, say something like "I saw the helicopters, but they didn't see me."  Most people don't realize how hard it is to see a person on the ground, especially when they are wearing earth tones and standing in a forest.  There have been times when the pilot and I knew exactly where the firefighters were supposed to be, but just couldn't see them (and they were wearing yellow shirts and were out in the open). 

When we search by air, we aren't necessarily looking for a person or a body.  Those can be pretty hard to see.  What we are looking for is something that looks out of the ordinary: something man made, movement, or a color that doesn't fit with its surroundings.  Some things that work:

-Get out in the open.  It sounds obvious, but some lost hikers don't do this.  Even a small meadow in a sea of trees will catch the eye of the helicopter crew.

- Have something shiny.  A space blanket, silver colored tarp, signal mirror, or strobe light works really well.  Yes, it's something extra to carry, but it may make a difference.  On my crew we carry Fenix strobe flashlights.  They can be seen for miles.

-Wave a bright color.  You can tie a shirt or jacket to a stick or a trekking pole.

- Build something that looks unnatural.  A lost hiker was recently rescued when the SOS she made out of rocks was seen.  Just make sure it is in an open spot.

-Tie something white to a tree.  This helped us find a fallen climber once.  The white against the dark green was very obvious.

-Fire.  You ARE carrying matches, right? I hesitate to mention this, because lost people have started fires that ended up having devastating consequences.  If a fire is your last resort, remember that smoke can be seen much easier than flames.  Once your fire (in a cleared area) is going, pile on punky, damp wood; this will create thick smoke.  Here, we have commercial airliners calling in fires to us as they fly above the wilderness.  Chances are someone will see it.

-Lastly, try to stay put.  Search aircraft will start at the point last seen and move out from there.  Many people, and bodies, are found well outside the search area, where nobody thought they would ever be. 

It's devastating to search vast sections of wilderness and never find a missing person.  It's worse than finding their remains, because then at least you know what happened.  When someone vanishes and can't be located at all, you always wonder:  did I look hard enough? what if they were below me and I just didn't see them?

If you get lost in my area, we will look for you.  We will look even if you didn't carry a beacon, didn't tell anyone where you were going, didn't want to be found, or made foolish choices.  We want to find you.  Please help us.

This was a tiny fire, started by lightning a long way from the nearest road or trail.  It was really just one log burning on the ground.  But very visible.



Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The regrets of fall

I looked out the window of my office as snow piled up rapidly.  I didn't have my snow tires on yet, I realized.  I still had a weight plate on my rood holding down a patch repair.  My denial about the approach of winter was about to end.

Summer here seemed really short, not for the usual reasons of being busy with fires, because it was very slow in that regard.  A rainy spring charged into a rainy, cool summer.  Then it snowed early, and rainy days were interspersed with brief sunny intervals.  Now they are making snow on the ski hill, and the tire shops are crowded with procrastinators.  It's undeniable that summer, and probably fall, are pretty much over.

This time of year, I tend to think about what I didn't get done.  My kayak reproaches me from the corner of the garage.  "You didn't take me out very much!" it seems to be saying.  My hiking shoes seem to glare from the shelf.  "Once again, no trip to Heavens Peak Lookout!" they might be thinking; my backpack agrees.  Even my garden looks sad; I should have bought more trees this year, but waited till the last day the nursery was open; of course none of the ones I wanted were left.

This is silly, obviously; a sort of delayed FOMO.  Sometimes I want to do it all: see all the countries, hike all the trails, and just do more.  That's impossible, so I look back at my pictures.  This summer I hiked to many fire lookouts, and stayed overnight in three of them.  I spent time with friends on the trail.  I saw some new places.  And, with a demanding job, that's pretty good.

For now I am grudgingly accepting winter's arrival.  There will be snowboarding and snowshoeing to do.  The mountains look beautiful with white tops.  And now there is time to think of all the trails and all the trips that wait in the future.  Get ready, elusive fire lookout! I'm coming for you.


Monday, November 4, 2019

Still running

The sun wasn't up yet as I started up the hill that marked the beginning of my running route around the island.  It's not really an island; it's a peninsula, but everybody called it that when I was growing up.  "Let's go to the island and have a picnic," we would say.  Or, "the race goes around the island."

A cold breeze blew from Lake Superior and it rustled the colorful fallen leaves on the empty road.  Nobody else was out.  I felt like I as running back in time.

This is where I grew up, and where I started running at 14.  I ran so many miles here, in all kinds of weather (I didn't set foot on a treadmill till sometime in my 30s).  I sported the first pair of running tights in town, which had to be custom made.  I even got recruited for the university cross country team, and spent hours on sand hills and trails.

The younger me would have cruised by the me of today at least 2 minutes a mile faster, and would have barely noticed the hills.  The younger me ran all the time.  She did speed work on the track, and hill repeats.  She ran lots of races.  Sometimes she won them.

I ran past the site of the old zoo, now gone, and the summer ice cream stand.  I couldn't shake the feeling of running in my old, ghost footsteps.  So much has changed since then, and yet here I was, still running.

As I followed the familiar path, I felt like I was chasing my younger self.  I couldn't catch her though; she stayed just ahead of me, her feet in the same Nike model I wear now barely skimming the ground.  That girl had no idea of what lay ahead of her, but she was determined to keep running.

 And I have kept running.  Not as fast, as often or as far, but I'm still out there.
I also ran on this beach.