Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The (volunteer) lookout diaries: Canadian border edition

 I sat in the fire lookout, watching lightning strike mountains to the north. None of it was in my response area though. It was all up in Canada, the forbidden land just three miles away. The trees on both sides of the border swath look the same, and they burn the same, but if I saw a fire start over there, it would be up to the Canadians to respond.

I was filling in for the regular lookout, but as a volunteer: he had asked fire managers if they could pay me, but they didn't want to deal with it. I'm not a very good volunteer, or maybe I'm too good: I couldn't let go of the employee mentality. My only responsibilities were to call in the weather once a day and check in at the end of shift. I couldn't make myself loaf around though. I carried a radio with me everywhere I went, just in case. The helispot was displeasing to me, so I took an axe and cut down the little trees that could be tail rotor grabbers. I even packed 5 gallons of water up the steep trail from the creek a mile and a half below. 

The days were hot, and storms brewed over the park and the border almost every night. I looked for fires, but there weren't any. I lifted rocks for weights. Seeing an intriguing meadow down below, I hiked to it, and named it Magic Meadow. I read a lot of books.

Several hikers appeared. Most were hiking the Pacific Northwest Trail; they were delightful, with a love for trail life. A group of friends burst from the trees; they had planned to surprise me with treats. I shared the fruit with the thru-hikers. "Trail magic!" they exclaimed.

I had mixed feelings as I hiked down to return to civilization. I miss getting paid to fill in, like I used to, especially since I was paying my cat sitter. But I can't turn down a lookout stay; they are my favorite places. If I'm needed, I'll do it again.



Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Imposter Retiree

 I struggled most of my career with "imposter syndrome." Although objectively I had all the skills, knowledge, and ability to do my job, which was often difficult, I had a lot of self doubt. What was I doing here, I often thought. Surely I'll be outed as someone who doesn't know what she's doing! (Note: this is obviously silly, with all my experience, but who knows why the mind works the way it does).

Now I'm finding I have imposter retiree syndrome! It's been six months since I retired, but it still doesn't feel real. It feels like I'm on an extended furlough, and soon will have to go back. The phone will ring, and HR will say sorry, there was a mistake on your paperwork. Sometimes I start driving east, and zone out and think I need to turn into the office. I'm a little too interested in my former workplace's drama, as if for some reason I might need to deal with it.

I suspect this is normal, this feeling that I'm kind of getting away with something. Yesterday, as I floated in my kayak, a helicopter flew over, probably bound for a fire. Mixed with thoughts of missing out was a sense of relief. I put my time in, with all the associated hardships and hazards, and now I don't have to do those things anymore, unless I want to. 

Imposter retiree syndrome isn't a bad thing. I'm grateful for these days and hope to never take them for granted. They are deserved, but they are also a privilege. Not everyone makes it here. I won't forget that.


 


Friday, July 2, 2021

Time

 Lately it's been pretty hot outside. People in northern climates aren't really used to prolonged stretches of 100 degrees. Cue the complaining on Facebook. People are posting pictures of snow and saying that they wish it was winter, that they wanted to be skiing again. Of course, when winter does arrive and it's below zero, they'll be saying they can't wait for summer.

Recently, a lovely young woman named Lindsay, a local wildland firefighter during the summers, had a freak accident while kayaking. Her parents sadly removed her life support and she slipped away. One of the West Yellowstone smokejumpers died after a hard landing. Four people from a helicopter company I often work with perished in a horrific crash. Several young people in my town have chosen suicide. I'm sure the ones who loved them wanted more days with them, whether those days were scorching or freezing.

Let's not wish time away. It goes by so fast as it is. Soon these summer days will be only a memory.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Hummingbird Heaven

 I was on my porch when a small, green-backed hummingbird buzzed me. She flew around me for a few seconds, and then hovered near last year's nest in my wind chime. Could it be last year's mother, come to nest again? It was impossible to tell, but she seemed very familiar with my back yard, visiting the feeder and immediately taking up residence in the nest.

I instantly instituted Operation Hummingbird Success. Forays near the nest had to be done with caution. Visitors were banned from loud talking. I hung around the window. obsessively checking on the status of the mother bird. If she disappeared for while, I fretted. Where was she? The nest was too high for me to look into it without a ladder, and I didn't want to scare her off. When she appeared again I breathed a sigh of relief.

I went away for a week and immediately checked on the nest. The mom flew in and appeared to be feeding babies! This brought a new concern: what if something happened to her when she was out foraging? But the mother bird, a single mom (the father doesn't even help build the nest), always came back. Soon, I could see little beaks poking up out of the nest. After that, it didn't take long to start seeing the babies.

I watched them as they stretched and flapped their wings. One was bigger and bolder than the other; it sat on the edge of the nest, looking around curiously. One day I walked around the back of the house to see only one baby left. Worried, I scoured the trees with binoculars until I spotted the adventurous one, sitting on a nearby branch. I watched as the mother came to feed it there.

The other little bird waited a day, and then it was gone as well. The mother came back to the nest as if she were looking for it. After that day, I didn't see the babies again. This was unlike last year, when I saw the two babies flying around and eating from the feeder for a few days.

Are they doing well, merely chased off by the mother to find new territories, or did something happen to them? It's hard not knowing: I feel invested. Still, I try to imagine that first flight: what it was like to launch fearlessly into the air, doing something they had never done before, hurling themselves into the unknown. I prefer to think they are out there now, hovering helicopter-like over flowers, getting ready for that incredible miracle of migration. And I saw the mother today: she came and checked out the nest. Possibly she will have another brood this year.  If not, I look forward to seeing these little birds again next year. I love them.



Friday, June 18, 2021

The spring of (not) boring trails, part one


There are many trails around here I had never hiked. I thought they would be boring. They appeared to be long forest slogs, taking forever to get to any sort of view.  I can sort of be forgiven for this, because I live in a pretty spectacular area.  Why hike a "boring" trail when there are so many beautiful places to go?

My friends wanted to hike to a lake in the park. As I threw a puffy jacket and Clif bars in my pack, I envisioned a cloud of mosquitoes, endless trees, and lots of other hikers. In addition, it was 17 miles. But I'm usually up for anything, and it could be a one and done, no need to re-do this trail. 

There was only one car at the trailhead. We started hiking up a steep ridge. To my surprise, because of a recent forest fire, sweeping mountain views soon appeared. Mysterious large green meadows lay far below the trail, probably hidden to hikers before the flames. The vistas only got better as we descended into the valley.

The lake sat in a cirque of tall peaks. A waterfall roared down from a hidden lake high above. If this trail were shorter, it would be overrun by people, but we only saw a solo woman leaving the lake as we arrived, toting a fishing pole and camera tripod. 

We ate lunch in the sunshine next to the water, marveling at our good fortune to have it all to ourselves. As we hiked out, we only saw two more people, who looked like they were struggling as they crested the ridge and probably wouldn't make it to the lake. Other potential hikers probably sped by this trail, like me thinking erroneously that it would be a long, boring haul. Like me, they were wrong.

If nothing else, this pandemic has taught me, once again, not to take things for granted. There are other hidden treasures out there, and I intend to find them.

 



Thursday, June 10, 2021

Goodbye, work friends

 We spent many hours together, up to 16 at a time, sometimes for 14 or 21 days straight. That's enough time to get to know a person. You learn what they like to eat for lunch, what their pet peeves are, what will cause them to have a meltdown. Often you dive deeper too, finding out their fears, insecurities, and what brings them joy. I've had coworkers tell me things they wouldn't reveal to their significant others. 

And yet, when you leave the job, that bond is usually broken, unless you're friends outside of work. I'm sure many colleagues are; with my job it was hard, though. I was the boss of my crew: I had to maintain a certain boundary with them, and socializing makes it difficult. Plus, when you spend so much time at work, you want to get away from it all on your time off, to see your non-fire friends, or revel in solitude.

My former workplace has gone on without me, which, of course, it's supposed to do. The ink barely dries on your retirement papers before someone else is occupying your job. I don't hear work gossip. People experience major life events that I don't know about. Others get promoted, some past their level of competence or despite their questionable ethics. I was there for almost ten years, but suddenly I'm not a part of it anymore. The appreciation I felt from my work friends and colleagues is gone. 

This is normal, though. I haven't even been retired six months, and I'm still navigating my world without fire and without employment. I don't want to be a hanger-on, one of those people who shows up at retirement parties, circling the room looking for someone to talk to. It's time to move on.

Luckily, I have another group of friends. They don't fight fire. They range in age from mid 20s to mid 70s. We mostly hike together, but sometimes take dogs for walks or have dinner. They're the people who stuck by me when fire assignments and a pandemic kept us apart. I deeply appreciate them. By just being in my life, they are helping me turn the page on my past life and move on into the new chapter.

We might be weird, but we are here for each other 




Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Lucky

I struggled along on a trail run. Glaciers were probably moving faster. It felt hotter than the mid 70s in the woods. Still, as I collapsed back at my house, contemplating the hours of yard work still ahead, I felt lucky.

Summer has arrived, and I'm here for it. This is my first summer that I'll have real time off since 1990.

I started fighting fire in 1988, but for those first three years I was what was called "militia." As a park ranger, fire wasn't my primary job, so for the most part, unless I was needed for a fire, I had a pretty regular schedule: two days off a week, eight hour work days.  In 1991 I got on my first fire crew, and all that changed.

When you work as a wildland firefighter, summers are your sacrifice. If it's particularly rainy that year, you might get your two days off, but that's only if there's nothing happening anywhere else in the country where they might need your crew, helicopter, or engine. More likely, it goes like this: you leave your house in the morning, not knowing if you'll be back that night or three weeks later. You'd better have everything packed in your personal gear bag and everything else: bills, pets, plants, etc handled. 

If the fire season is instead raging at your Forest or Park, you're still not going to be home much. You'll be working 12 to 16 hour shifts, probably 14 to 21 of them, and then get one or two days off. At least one of these days is usually spent dealing with everything you let drop while you were working. If you're lucky, and feel motivated, your friends will accommodate your crazy schedule and hike with you when you finally get time off. One summer I worked 65 days straight (nope, we weren't supposed to, but there was nobody else to take over).

I don't know what it's like to have days off on a regular basis during the summer. One year, I took advantage of my boss's good nature and requested a week off work in June to go to Iceland. As I boarded the plane, I felt like I was getting away with something. A few days after I got back, I left on a two week fire assignment. 

Now that I'm retired, the summer is mine. This thought makes me feel slightly anxious. I should be out doing ALL THE THINGS, all the time. I need to hike all the trails! Kayak all the lakes! But look at the yard, it needs attention, and the porch needs painting. I tell myself to settle down. There's time.

I worked hard for this, but I'm grateful. I made it through thirty lost summers, some scary moments, thousands of hours of overtime, and the loss of some relationships to get here. It was all worth it. I'm ready.



Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Home

What does home mean to you? Is it a place, a person, or where you grew up?

The sense of home has always been problematic to me. I was a seasonal nomad for many years, living in 15 different states, moving the same stuff around the country. I had boxes that remained unpacked, because what was the point, if I was leaving again in six months?

There are a lot of places I could live. I like looking out of car or plane windows and seeing the lights of houses or dirt roads leading up to remote cabins, wondering what it would be like to live there. In all the places I called home, even if it was just for a few months, there were good things, even in the midst of months of darkness and cold (Alaska) and "rock fever"(living on one of the Hawaiian islands). When people say, "I couldn't live there" about a place this bothers me. Obviously they physically could. They might even find something great about it.

But even if you could physically live anyplace, would it feel like home?

I've lived in my current town for 10 years, longer than I've lived anywhere since I left my parents' house. I know the best routes to get places. People ask me about hiking trails. I have a small but mighty support system. I could still decide to pick up and leave, but even though I'm retired, I have no plans currently to do so.

Is it home? I think so, but a lot of places could be, too. I've lived in bunkhouses, a tiny trailer surrounded by wild bunnies, and a cabin without water, heat, or a bathroom. For a brief time they were all home to me. I've lived by the ocean, in the desert, and in the mountains. For the most part, I loved them all. More than a place, I carried home with me. It wasn't a particular town or house. It was in my heart instead.



Tuesday, May 11, 2021

i'm a guidebook

 The four young men approached hesitantly as I unloaded my bike from the truck. They looked a little out of place in a national park, dressed in skinny jeans and with tiny fashion backpacks. One sported a leather jacket that would look fitting on the streets of New York. 

"Excuse me," one said hopefully. "Where is the Valley of the Sun road?"

I resisted saying that they were standing 50 feet from the Going to the Sun road, a road they had just been driving on for the past 10 miles. Instead, I informed them that the road was right over there, and no, they couldn't drive on it any farther (they must have seen the gate, as it would have forced them to stop), but they could hike or bike on it. They moseyed uncertainly off, unsure of their plans.

This isn't unusual. It happens all the time. I have tried to perfect an unapproachable air, in order to maintain a bubble at backcountry campsites, airport gates, and to discourage serial killers, but it must not be working too well, because people still come up and ask me questions. They even do it in foreign countries. While standing in an immense immigration line in Chile, a person once bypassed all the locals to ask me something in Spanish. 

Maybe it's the years of being a park ranger, where I had to keep a straight face while providing answers to questions like, "how many native American ruins haven't been discovered yet?" and "what time of year do the deer turn into elk?" Or perhaps it's from being a supervisor and having to herd cats, I mean seasonal employees.  Or maybe I seem non-threatening, not the serial killer type. Even acquaintances regularly ask me about trail conditions, or where they should hike, often without inviting me along (this is annoying).

I returned from our bike and hike and started loading my bike back into the truck. A man approached. "Sunset?" he asked. I might as well not fight it. I pointed toward the lodge and told him to go sit there. He hurried off happily to get some photos. I hope they were good.




Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Bike-n-hike

I valiantly pedaled my cruiser bike up a hill. Behind me, some little kids on bikes were threatening to catch up. I'm not really a biker, I realized, as I got off to walk my bike through an icy section. The kids elected to stay on board. This proved to be a poor decision for one of them, as he slipped and eventually fell. Being a kid, he was unhurt and gamely got back on his bike. But the delay allowed me to pull ahead.

The road through the national park doesn't open to cars till late June at the earliest because of the massive snowdrifts that must be cleared. When it does open, the lake I wanted to hike to is an easy 5 mile round trip from the trailhead, and overrun with tourists. Now, biking or hiking 12 miles round trip is the only way to get to where the trail starts. Hence, the bike.

Hardier cyclists than I hurried by, bound for higher elevations. But I turned into the campground and left my bike there, slipping on microspikes and starting up the trail. Nowhere in sight were the summer hordes, sporting questionable footwear and carrying portable speakers. A few people sat quietly at the lake, drinking in the view: I knew how many there would be, by the bikes left at the gate.

After awhile I turned to go, and headed back down the trail to my trusty bike. I pedaled the six miles back to the parking area, feeling pleasantly tired and happy to do something different (and to at least stay ahead of some little kids).



Monday, April 26, 2021

Relief

 I've been vaccinated for about a month now, so I've been out on the town, hugging strangers and...just kidding! I didn't do that before the pandemic! 

For me it's a relief though.  I can now hang out with vaccinated friends. Travel doesn't seem so daunting. We can now carpool to trailheads instead of driving several separate vehicles (aka the "Montana car pool:" one person per car). I'm not quite as grumpy when I encounter an unmasked person where masks are required. The gym is not as much of a minefield now.

Sometimes I feel like I'm "wasting" whatever period of immunity that I have. Places like Iceland are now letting vaccinated travelers in; tickets are cheap and I think about buying one and just going. I'm hesitant, though: people there are conflicted. They rely on tourism but are aware that they live on an isolated island; an undetected covid case brought in by a visitor could lock them down again. I don't want to be a cause of annoyance for them. Plus, I don't feel like touring around the country in a mask and having to get a covid test to get back in the U.S.

"I'll pick you up," I say to my vaccinated friend as we plan a hike.  I'm so happy that this is possible. Thank you, scientists!




Monday, April 19, 2021

Progress?

 There is a trail that is only known to a few locals, although more people are discovering it. When D. showed it to me last year, it was faint in places. Now it is more defined and wide. I even saw three mountain bikers on it yesterday. Regardless, though it is near a popular, crowded trail, there is abundant solitude here. 

Recently we found something new on this trail. Several signs warned aggressively of no trespassing, and several stakes decorated a section of the ridge. Orange flagging was lettered with words like "garage" and "living room." Someone had obviously purchased this plot of land right on the trail, and was determined to build a large house there.

In order to build, they will have to extensively level the ridge that they have staked out. They will bring in heavy equipment, tear up the hill, and cut down the trees. Our trail, and our access, will be gone.

Over thirty thousand people moved here during the pandemic. They aren't coming to work at Wendy's; the majority of them are remote workers or self-employed, fleeing their crowded states. Most likely whoever is building up there is one of them.

I know that the economy marches on, and real estate is at a premium. I'm not from here either, despite having moved to this state fifteen years ago. This ridge we traversed must have been private land to begin with, albeit with no signs or owners around. It was probably only a matter of time. 

For now, I slip past the signs, a small act of defiance.  Soon this won't be possible; this gorgeous, quiet ridge will be off limits. I can't help but feel sad about it.








Monday, April 12, 2021

Hiking in the time of corona

A little over a year ago, I stopped trusting some of my friends, and they probably stopped trusting me.  Being a first responder, I didn't have the luxury of working from home.  I tried my best to avoid the dreaded covid, but I had to interact with other firefighters, pilots and the public every day. People at work were getting the virus all around me (I'm proud that my fire crew stayed covid-free). 

As for my hiking buddies, I knew some of them were embracing a hermit-like lifestyle, but others weren't quite so careful. As the pandemic wore on and restaurants and bars were opening, they started going out. They posted pictures on Facebook of themselves hiking in large groups. They frequented unmasked places, like church. 

As hard as it was, I had to avoid them. People in the next tier, the mostly cautious, I would meet at trailheads instead of driving together. This once resulted in four cars, each with one person, traversing a long, snowy road, which was pretty silly, but virus-free. A few people stayed in the inner circle; I  sometimes drove with them, but often met them at the trail too.

Now that I'm nearing my vaccineversary (I made that up), I'm ready to let go of this stress. I'm aware that no vaccine works 100% of the time, but the people I hike with are also now vaccinated or planning to get it soon. Some things won't change ( I'm still not a fan of big groups) but it's definitely a relief. The bears are coming out too, so it's time to hit the trail with friends.



Saturday, April 3, 2021

(more) dumb stuff I've done in the woods

 Just when you thought it was safe to go in the woods, here I am again, doing more dumb stuff! Actually, you're pretty safe: most of these things happened awhile ago. However, you're sometimes just one forgetful moment away from having a silly moment in the forest. In reality, I remembered more things I've done, so here we go, with some of the dumb stuff I've done out there:

Believed a guy when he said he knew the way out of the woods. Much floundering ensued, accompanied by mirth on the part of the rest of the crew when they had to come get us almost a mile away from the vehicles.

Believed a map and didn't check with locals, leading to crashing through brush at two a.m. in bear country and an illegal campfire in a national park.

Accidentally sprayed myself with bear spray.

Almost caught a fire lookout on fire by putting a piece of wood into the stove that was too big, then having to pull the flaming wood out of the stove and throw it off the catwalk.

Was sure the big, angry buffalo that I drove by would be gone after I parked and went running back the same route. It wasn't.

Took a potty break behind the Land Rover in the Serengeti, neglecting to see the leopard perched nearby in a tree.

Saw a mountain lion while running, continued running in blissful ignorance.

Didn't seam seal an old tent; it rained.

Didn't want to carry a sleeping bag into the Grand Canyon, figured it would be hot, carried a sheet and rolled up like a burrito on the beach; froze.

Succumbed to peer pressure and skied down a big hill instead of taking off skis like I wanted to; broke my ankle.

Told my group of hikers that I knew the way; ended up at the wrong lake.

Neglected to properly vent a can of chili on a campfire in the Yellowstone backcountry, causing it to burst and my companion to yell "bear bait" as we picked up beans from the dirt.

I'm unlikely to do most of these things again; however, dumbness in the woods is always lurking. In fact, I confidently told my friend that she wouldn't need snowshoes or hiking poles the other day; as we postholed through the forest, she may have been thinking, this is dumb!

Hopefully not about to do something dumb





Saturday, March 27, 2021

Dumb stuff I've done in the woods

 People often ask my advice about hiking trails. They want to know where they should go, what the conditions are, what they should take. I might be forgiven for thinking I'm some kind of expert or something. 

But behind every expert is a long list of lessons learned, things they could have done better. As I hiked back out of a trail today with wet boots after a water mishap, I reflected on some of the missteps in my outdoor life. Let's begin! In the (in some cases, not so distant) past, I:

Forgot an important item, such as microspikes, insect repellant, bear spray, etc, that was essential to that day's success. Once I forgot my whole backpack! Luckily, I was close enough to my house that I could go back and grab it.

Ran out of water, once shamefully asking a fire lookout for some (I would never do this now, instead I would suffer, but it was a long time ago).

Ran out of food.

Didn't bring rain gear. Needed rain gear.

Went running during a tornado watch.

Got temporarily misplaced and had to look for the trail.

Caught my hair on fire.

Neglected to set new tent up before the backpacking trip, leading to an hour's worth of flailing at the campsite trying to figure it out.

Didn't make enough noise and surprised a bear.

Attempted to hike in snow wearing sandals.

Got my vehicle stuck driving ill-advised roads to trailheads.

Had my brakes go out going down a winding, narrow logging road coming back from a trail.

Jumped off a rock into poison oak.

Refused to pack air mattress to save weight; campsite was rocky.

Climbed up places without thinking about how scary it would be to climb down them.

Fell through thin ice when trying to step off the shoreline of an allegedly frozen lake.

Wore shorts; encountered stinging nettles and devils club.

Changed into pants at campsite and climbed to a viewpoint to watch the sunset, leaving shorts out to dry; looked down and saw a mountain goat making off with the shorts.

Ignored tide charts and attempted to cross a bay that was rapidly filling with water; had to sprint back to the other side.

Let go of kayak while getting in it and had to run along the river bank trying to grab it.

If the people who asked me for advice only knew! But what's important is that you learn from your mistakes, right?

Anybody else have any silly things they've done in the woods?







Saturday, March 20, 2021

Retirement: Social media vs. reality

 I've been retired almost three months, and if you were to peruse my Facebook account, you might think all I do is hike all day, every day, and that every day is pretty perfect. But that would be wrong. 

Here is a pretty picture of a lake I hiked to recently:


What you don't see: the first mile and a half was as icy as a skating rink. I slid even with spikes on. I giggled inwardly as I caught up to and passed some young guys in their 20s, but then double timed it to stay ahead of them. I carried my snowshoes nine miles and didn't need them. Not having eaten, I ate chocolate like a wild dingo at the lake and then discovered it was 500 calories. On the way back I heard a loud noise in the woods and yelled Hey Bear loudly as I slid down the trail.

Last week I didn't post much on Facebook. That's because I was crankily perched in front of my computer, completing a helicopter manager refresher in Microsoft Teams so that I can stay current and still go on fire assignments. The cats walked across the keyboard, attempting to send messages in the chat. My camera refused to turn off for awhile after I stopped talking (the horror!) A glitch locked me out of the meeting for an hour.  Meanwhile, it was sunny and in the 50s outside.

Other days, I wake up and don't feel like gathering all my cold weather gear and driving a long way to a trailhead. Hiking with friends is still logistically complicated; often we take separate cars due to covid, leaving cell service and hoping everyone will make it to the trailhead. Some days I just drag myself to the gym in the middle of the day, joining the ranks of people who seem too young to be retired, and either are remote workers or have trust funds. It's not very exciting, so gym pictures rarely make the cut. 

When I was still working, I fiercely envied retired people. I imagined their lives to be carefree. Time, I thought, would slow down. Well, nope. It's great not to be working, but there are still plenty of bills to pay. Days seem to hurtle by even faster than ever. And if you were considered an expert in your field, you are suddenly not relevant. It's a lot to process.

So, for every trail photo you see on social media, there are exciting nights devoted to reading books (Nomadland: read it) and eating cookies. It's not bad, but it's not perfect either. It's just life.


I hope my snowshoes enjoyed riding in my pack for 9 miles

Thursday, March 11, 2021

The season of indecision

 Here in the mountains, it's not really winter, but not quite spring. We're used to packing all sorts of things no matter the season (I've been snowed on in July and August, and seen 60 degrees in February), but this time of year is particularly difficult.

B. and I hesitated at the trailhead. Snowshoes or microspikes? The snow looked packed down at the start, but you never knew what it would be like fifteen hundred feet higher.  We strapped the snowshoes on our packs, pretty sure we wouldn't need them, but not willing to turn around or post hole. I once carried snowshoes up a trail 5 miles and 5000 feet in elevation gain, only to not need them and carry them all the way back down. On the other hand, I've followed tracks where someone, snowshoe-less, had miserably fallen in for miles.

Ski pants or leggings? Take the hand warmers or not? Bear spray? Just kidding, always bear spray. As we hike up the hills, we take off layers, switch out wool hats for baseball caps, remove gloves; then when we arrive at the frozen lake, put it all back on. The sun peeks out from behind a cloud and we get warm again, then the wind blows across the ice and we shiver. 

Most people I know just take it all. Rain jacket, even though it's not supposed to snow at all, because then it probably will. Trekking poles, on trails where they're not needed in summer, because of ice. Matches, even on a 4 mile trail, because there are so many stories about hikers lost in blizzards. Both gloves and mittens, because cold hands are the worst. And snowshoes, even though, as I suspected, we carried them all the way to the lake and back. Once there, though, we spotted the lone hiker ahead of us, and saw that he had done the same thing.

Even with all the layering and unlayering, superfluous gear, and uncertainty, I love hiking this time of year. The mountains are covered in snow, there are less people and bears around, and there is a hint of warmth in the wind. Spring isn't here, but it's right around the corner.




Thursday, March 4, 2021

wandering in the fire lookout graveyard

 Anyone who has been reading here for awhile knows that I really like, ok might be a little obsessed with, fire lookouts. There's something about these historic buildings, very few of them staffed anymore, standing abandoned on lonely mountains, that makes me want to spend time there. I've even gotten to stay overnight in a few of them, and have filled in for the regular lookout people on their days off.  If a fire lookout is on a hiking trail, I always want to go there.

Sadly, many of these old buildings have fallen down or been removed over the years. Hiking to a former lookout site isn't quite as fun, but it's still interesting. There are hundreds of these sites in my local mountains. In the lookout heyday, people stationed throughout the forest would have been able to see the lights of their fellow lookouts in the distance, and share recipes on a phone line strung for miles on the trees.

Looking around, we can usually find traces of the towers and cabins that once graced the tops of the peaks. Concrete footings, nails, and pieces of glass are common, as are old, rusted cans and outhouse pits. On a couple of mountains I've found old bedframes, too unwieldly or remote to have been carried down. Old trails that led to water springs or other routes off the hills can still be found. It's easy to imagine the solitary man or woman who once lived up here, carrying drinking water and chopping firewood, stopping to gaze at the horizon to look for smoke.

Old bed frames at a former lookout site

Long after the buildings have fallen down and the trails fade into obscurity, the spectacular views still remain. Visiting enough of these sites, you can usually find where the lookout once stood by assessing the terrain. I wish all the lookouts were still there, but I know that's impossible, with harsh winter weather and lack of funding for upkeep. When I go there, I can still dream of what it must have been like to stay up here, in a little house in the sky.

There once was a fire lookout here. It must have been really terrible to look at this view every day.





Thursday, February 25, 2021

new chapters

 I saw one of the firefighters at the gym. "I thought you went to South Carolina," he said, referring to a group of people who had gone south for prescribed burning. "No, I retired!" I said. "That's even better!" he answered.

It's been less than two months since I took early retirement, but already I feel the world of fire slipping away. I rarely talk to former employees; they are busily making decisions about my program that I used to make. I don't hear work gossip. I'm invited to a meeting, but wouldn't get paid if I attended, although there are methods and money to do so. I attempt to call to keep my access to a financial system that I'll need to use, and it's obvious that nobody has much of an interest in helping a retiree. I'm a has-been, a "former firefighter."

I was curious about what this would be like. After being a firefighter for 33 years, I wondered if I would feel a little lost to lose that part of my identity. This happens to a lot of people. They flounder, wondering who exactly they are and what their purpose is, after devoting so much time and energy to the job and giving up so much in the process.

I'm discovering I'm not one of those people. I have wonderful memories of my adventurous career, but I don't miss it that much. If I never get in a helicopter again, I'm all right with that. If I only see smoke from a distance, that's fine too. I'll never forget the places I got to see and the people I shared it all with, but it's time for new adventures.

 Although being a wildland firefighter was a large part of my life, I always knew I was more than that. I loved my job, but I was always happy to have time off. There were so many other things I wanted to do. I liked my crews, but I had good friends outside of fire to spend time with, a small but mighty support system. Fire was only one of the things I did.

I'll always look up when a helicopter flies over, and I'll wonder about a smoke column in the distance. I'll always treasure my time out in the forest, saving trees, houses, and sometimes lives. But after a short pause, I'll continue on down the trail, looking out for whatever is around the next turn.






Thursday, February 18, 2021

In praise of the non-alpine start

 I dreaded it on my mountaineering trips: the rustling sounds, the tent zippers coming open, people stomping around, usually at midnight or 1 a.m. It was usually bitterly cold, and nobody felt like eating, but we had to. If you hadn't had the foresight to put anything that might freeze overnight into your sleeping bag, you'd be sorry, even if it meant being crowded in with boot liners, water bottles, batteries, headlamps and cameras. 

The alpine start is necessary if you have a long way to go and if you want to be headed down before snow conditions change, falling rock and ice danger mounts because of warming temperatures, or darkness falls. I never liked it though. At 19,000 feet on a Himalayan peak, I tossed and turned, checking the time compulsively, while my tentmate Lesley snored away contentedly. I knew we would have to get up soon and this made sleep impossible.

In the summer, starting out early to hike is easy. It's warm and the sun is up. You want to avoid any tourist hordes. Winter is harder. Lately the temperatures have been below zero for the highs. The roads are icy. Luckily, I have some hiking buddies who like to adjust start times in the winter. Maybe they went out the night before and need a more relaxing morning, or they walk their dogs or shovel their driveways. We often meet at 10 or later, if the trailhead is close.

In past years I might have called myself lazy to get going that late. I've discovered though that there are some benefits to it. Obviously, it's warmer. Around here in the winter, the sun sometimes hides in the clouds and there is an inversion until later in the day. Many times I've arrived back at the trailhead to see the sun just breaking out, probably brilliantly illuminating the frigid peak or lake I tagged and raced away from to avoid hypothermia. Also, delaying the start time sometimes means a group of snowshoers has packed down the trail; thanks guys! Too, I have some hiking friends who just can't get going earlier. I wouldn't want to miss out on being with them.

The non-alpine start is especially possible this time of year as the days get longer. Starting at noon, we can still cover 10 miles and be at the car by dusk. And we can see the sunset!

Don't get me wrong, sunrises are great and it's nice to be out on the trail early, especially in the summer. But if my friends want to meet at 10 I'll be there for it. And if I see you out there at the trailhead at noon I won't be like the acquaintance I ran into while snowshoeing in the park. "You're just heading out now?" she asked judgmentally. "The snow's going to be really soft!" Instead, I'll say hi and probably feel envious that you're going to be hiking in the sunshine the whole way.




Thursday, February 11, 2021

The local life

 One thing that kept me going through all the years of overtime, employee supervision, and having no real summers for over 30 years was the thought of retirement. When I retire, I thought, I'm going to do ALL THE TRAVEL. No longer would I be limited to the southern hemisphere because the only time I had free was in the winter. Now I could travel in the spring and summer! Norway, Greenland, Switzerland, here I come! 

Um, no. I can't plan anything, due to the virus. It's iffy if other countries will let us in by the summer, and the vaccination is a long ways off for me, due to not being in any high risk groups. I know people who are happily going to Mexico and other tropical destinations right now, but personally I just don't feel right about that yet. I'm even hesitant to plan road trips right now, although I could probably stay pretty distant from others. So, staying local it is.

I knew vaguely of a lake only a few miles from my house, but for some reason I had never visited it. One day while hiking, B. mentioned that she had skied on it. My ears perked up. Most of our winter so far has been mild, so many lakes hadn't frozen over. I looked up the ice fishing report. Eight inches of ice, that could hold a snowmobile! I packed up my microspikes and headed over.

There were only a couple of people on the lake. They were ice fishing, with varied degrees of seriousness. I started hiking around the perimeter on the ice. It was quiet. A few snow flurries came and went, temporarily obscuring the mountains. The lake was three miles around; I walked a couple of laps. 

It's not Iceland or even Sedona, but it'll do for now. I don't know when, if ever, I would have gone to this lake, but now I plan to take my kayak there in the summer. If I can't travel this summer, there are a couple of backpacking trips I want to take; one is to a backcountry lake I saw once from the air, that will require a packraft and a few miles of bushwhacking. For now, I'll be happy with what I have.




Thursday, February 4, 2021

The Representative

 The hotshot crew raved about our employee Gary (not his real name; apologies to Garys everywhere), when we sent him with them on a fire assignment. "He's a really hard worker, and doesn't talk much," they said. "And he has a great attitude!"

We considered this. Hard worker? Yes. Doesn't talk much? Debatable. Great attitude? We snickered. Not so much.

Gary went about his day with a permanent chip on his shoulder, often taking it out on us. Somehow we were the reason he wasn't getting ahead in his career, not his inability to get along with others or his negative mutterings about pretty much everything. How could the hotshots not have seen this, we wondered.

Then it dawned on me. They hadn't met Gary, not really. They had met his representative.

Everyone has a representative. The representative is who shows up at the beginning of a new job, a new relationship, or a new social setting. It's sometimes called "putting your best foot forward." Social media is full of people's representatives: only the good photos, and the most interesting situations, make the cut. 

Most people can't keep it going for very long in person. We had met Gary's representative briefly when we hired him; however he soon relapsed into his real self. His representative was very different from the reality.

A representative can be a good thing. Mine has gotten me through some social situations that I dreaded, assisted me with public speaking, and gained me some hiking partners I might not have gotten otherwise. I've learned a lot from my representative: I feel that she has many qualities I strive for. In the end, though, your representative just gets you a foot in the door. It's up to you to keep walking through it as the real, genuine, complex person that you are.

This beach in Hawaii is called Shark Bay; even my representative wouldn't swim at a beach with that name!

 


Thursday, January 28, 2021

the winter of my content

 Cross country skiers are complaining. "We need more snow, " they say. So are the people who think that low snow years mean more wildfires (around here, it's the spring rains that matter more). Meanwhile, I'm thinking this is the best winter I've had here.

This valley is often besieged with gray, depressing inversions in the winter. Not so much this year. We've actually had some sun. Bone-chilling temperatures and bitter winds have stayed away. My snowshoes are in the truck, but I haven't needed them. I've been able to hike happily with microspikes to several places that usually are covered by snowdrifts. This makes me happy, although my snowboard has been sitting in the garage. I'd rather hike, when the weather is like this.

I venture back into the national park, a madhouse in the summer, even during the pandemic. I see only a few people, but the mountains and trails are just as beautiful, and the bears are mostly asleep. The trails in the national forest are deserted.

Unpredictable February looms. It could be cold and snowy, or this mild weather could continue. If real winter does make an appearance, I'll roll with it, switch to snowshoes and go to the gym more. There's no point in wishing time away. It hurtles along so fast as it is.




Saturday, January 23, 2021

I'm still here!

 Blogger ate a long post I just wrote!

I'll try again soon.

Meanwhile here is a beautiful view of some mountains on my recent hike.



Thursday, January 7, 2021

what's the plan

Now that I've been retired one whole week, I'm noticing some common life themes. I can schedule appointments at pretty much any time. People still want me to give them references for jobs. I can go to the gym or hike any day. And, the main question I get from people is: "What's your plan now?"

My former job required a lot of plans. Some of these were written, as required by policy. For example, if we were going to burn a unit from the air, we had to have a safety plan that detailed specific procedures and risk management protocols. Some of them were developed on the fly, dictated by conditions; for example, I would tell the people in the back of the helicopter to cut down certain trees to make the helispot safer when they got out; meanwhile we would fly around looking for a water source. In firefighting, hope is not a plan nor is it a strategy. You also have to plan out your life: who could you call to watch the cats if you got called to a fire, what would you do for your one day off, would you have enough money saved when you got the boot from the job due to age.

So I understand the question. A lot of us fire retirees do have plans. B. knew she would sell her house and move. N. was going to start building a wood shop immediately. D. was retiring early because, he said, it wasn't worth it and he wanted to spend time with family (he is back in fire now though, part-time). H. took a job with the state so he would have two retirements.

I don't have a plan, not really.  It might have been to finally complete the Greenland trip I had to cancel due to covid last year, but apparently since I am not elderly or in prison, and I have a low BMI, I'm going to be in the last phase for the vaccine, so international travel might be on hold. I attempt to reserve fire lookouts for next summer, but hesitate: what if I want to do something else? Six months is a long time away.

I do have some ideas. L. wants me to backpack in Idaho with her and her daughter. There are a couple of long hikes here I want to do. My garden needs some work, and a deck and fence need to be painted. I have vague dreams of going to Sedona and the North Cascades, and of a greenhouse, but who knows. I think I'll wait and see.

For now, it feels good to not have a plan.