Friday, February 12, 2010

Running a misery whip with the boys


I got to relive my past wilderness ranger days last week. John and two fire guys were going up the East Fork of the Wallowa to cut down a dead larch that will be a future footbridge on the way to Ice Lake. I invited myself along because I am not one to miss out on a good winter hike, and besides, I'm the boss, so I can.

We hiked at a rapid pace up the trail, burdened with two crosscut saws, loppers, wedges, bow saw and other assorted necessities. The snow underfoot was soft and churned under our feet like deep sand. The river was smothered in ice.

At the junction, there was a big production of predicting the best path for the tree and beginning the face cut. Because this is wilderness, chainsaws aren't allowed. Even though it was a lot more work, there was something supremely satisfying about accomplishing our task with only an axe, wedges and a crosscut saw. As I pulled my end of the misery whip, I thought about all the generations before me who marched into the woods with the same tools. Instead of the growl of a saw, there was only the singing of the crosscut as it bit through the frozen wood.

In my office, people speak reverently of doing fieldwork, but what most of them mean is trudging around with a notebook. This is the true fieldwork: work that gets you sweaty and tired, ending with an accomplishment. For years to come backpackers will cross on our log. It will probably outlast us.

As we hiked out, I remembered days in the Sawtooths, hiking up similar trails with Deb, cutting out trails, clearing waterbars, camping for days at hidden lakes. I now have a steady salary and benefits, but at times like these I wonder why I gave up the seasonal ranger life. I miss it so.


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