Tuesday, August 31, 2021

What to do at a fire lookout

Ellie unwrapped the foils from my highlights. The state of my pandemic hair gave us plenty of time to talk. I had just told her I was spending the night at a rental fire lookout, and she looked puzzled. "What do you DO there?" she asked. It wasn't a judgmental question. I was similarly curious about what she did on her vacations, which seemed to involve pools and fruity drinks. We like different things, and that's okay. But her question made me ponder a bit. What do I do at fire lookouts?
I've stayed in four fire lookouts this summer, with more booked in the next few weeks. I was working at two of them, so much of my day was taken up with scanning for fires, talking to visitors, and taking weather observations. At the rentals, I had no such obligations. Some lookouts are on trail systems, so I go for hikes or even just run down the access road. The last one I rented was about an hour away from some hot springs, so I hiked in, soaked for awhile, and drove up to the lookout. I read lots of books. I poke around the building, finding historic logbooks. If the Osborne firefinder remains, I practice spotting fires with it. I take naps. And I spend a lot of time on the catwalk, sitting in the sun, spotting wildlife and just gazing at the mountains. It's kind of like being at a campsite, minus the tent. 

 For a lot of people, lookouts seem to be a minor novelty, or the backdrop to a selfie on social media. To me, they are more than that. There's something so incredible about waking up at sunrise in a little cabin on a mountaintop, a sky house that has stood there for seventy or more years. It's sacred ground. You don't have to do anything there, if you don't want to. Like the lookout, you can just be.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Back on the trail

 Three people set off on a 16 mile hike, including a short but steep scramble up a rocky peak. These three people had not done much hiking in the past month. What were they thinking?

A month of working on the fires meant that I left home at 6 am and didn't return until around 9:30 pm most days. While I attempted to exercise, this often meant sleepily riding my exercise bike or running 3 miles in semi-darkness. Hiking was put on hold; however I had high hopes for muscle memory.

The first six miles gained about 4100 feet, not as steep as some trails but enough to get your attention. We moved along briskly until I suddenly came to a stop, probably alarming Kim, as this is the classic "I see a bear" response. But no, it was a mother mountain goat and her baby.

We kept a respectful distance, but mom was wary and a bit annoyed. She walked toward us with a purposeful air. Kim and I booked it up the trail, leaving Donald, who had stopped to talk to some other hikers. He was on his own, we figured. Just when we thought we were in the clear, the baby goat ran after us.

We hurried up the last switchbacks to the historic chalet. In 2017 the lodge burned in a lightning caused fire, but it has since been rebuilt. People hike or ride horses to stay here; there is also a backcountry campsite. We paused here, but a peak nearby was our destination.

We scrambled up a rocky ridge, the views growing more expansive with every step. At the top we could see two turquoise lakes, a roaring waterfall, a small glacier, and mountains to the horizon.

We still had a long way to go. The downhill seemed to take forever, especially the last mile. We spread out, each with their own thoughts. Our feet hurt. We knew our legs would hurt the next day. It was great.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Termination Dust

That's what we used to call the first snow when it brushed the tops of the peaks in the Alaskan autumn. It meant the seasonal employees were about to be laid off; fire season was over, or nearly so. It was time to slow down: maybe you could take your pet sitter off standby, schedule a dentist appointment, think about seeing friends again.

Yesterday it snowed at one of the fire lookouts I volunteered at this year. It was just a dusting, but it foretold of things to come. Fire season isn't necessarily over yet up here: there are temperatures in the 70s and 80s predicted for next week. But it has definitely slowed, and I'm free once again to wander.

I worked nearly a month on a local fire. I didn't have to. I'm retired now. But my friend and former employee needed help, I could gain some additional income, and see old friends, so I agreed. Tomorrow I'm back to being gainfully unemployed.

I'm grateful for this program that lets me make some money, keep up my skills, and then leave when I decide to.  More hiking/fire lookout/general loafing about posts to come!



Sunday, August 8, 2021

Back at work: Observations from the other side

 The fires are still going, and I'm still working, helping out the forest where I used to work. My friends are hiking without me, complaining about the smoke without realizing how hard the firefighters have it right now, and how lucky they are that their town isn't overrun by fire. While I would like to be out on the trail, people here need help and the extra income will come in handy.  

It's interesting being back, though. I've only been gone seven months, but as a temporary worker, I've been able to observe the job through a different lens.  Lately I'm posted up at a regular office, and not at the fire. Here's a few things I've seen:

-Y'all (with some exceptions) work too much. Don't get me wrong, I was one of the worst offenders. But being back, I'm seeing meetings going on past 5 on Fridays, non-field workers here on the weekends, people taking on-call "days off."  Some of this is unavoidable, but in many cases people seem to think that everything would implode without them. It won't, take it from a retiree. They will find someone to fill your job in five minutes and life will go on. Take a break!

-Work is so much easier and less stressful without having to supervise anyone. Sorry, former employees: many of you were great. But, at least for me, supervision took a lot out of me and caused much anxiety. 

-Working from home is a wonderful thing. Keep doing it if you can. If you've forgotten: offices are loud, smell like people's icky lunch, and you have to drive to them. Avoid!

-I forgot how much of a time-sucking, will-to-live-destroyer administrative paperwork was. There is even more being piled on people since I left. 

-I don't miss my job. I truly enjoyed it most of the time. The flying, fires, and seeing new country was wonderful. But I see some retirees who keep coming back, not just for the money, but because they can't let go. They poured so much of themselves into fire that it leaves a void when it's time to turn the page. I'm not that person: I don't spend a lot of time looking back. There's so much else still ahead.