Saturday, June 26, 2010

the march of the women

Questions and comments I have received about being female in the backcountry:

1. "Aren't you scared to be out here?" (bet they wouldn't ask a man that)

2. "This is a tough job for a woman." (I was chopping a tree out of the trail with a pulaski, my 70 pound pack resting nearby, as a man zoomed by on a trail cycle.)

3. "You should hide your camp."

4. "How did you girls ever get across those waterfalls without a MAN along?"

5."Don't tell people you hike alone."

6. "YOU DON'T CARRY A GUN?"

Today as I hiked with my friend Dana on the Hurricane Creek trail, we were treated to a unique and satisfying phenomenon. Women! A steady stream of them. Women backpacking. Women day hiking. Women alone. Women together! Older women with trekking poles and sun hats. Younger ones with zip-off pants. Women with little fluffy dogs, with big dogs, without dogs. All smiling. All unafraid.

The world has changed in the decades I have been hiking. Women rule! (No offense, guys. I still like you.)

Friday, June 25, 2010

what is now


What is now is not what was.

I went kayaking today. Which means that I paddled in an eight mile circle around a lake with a dam on the end of it, dodging powerboats and pretending that wakes were ocean swells and that the bits of logs floating were otters poking their heads up to watch me go by. There were no whales with their explosive breaths of white foggy air. No bears strolling the beach. No tides, no rips, nothing but a lake where people parasail, for Pete's sake.

What is now is not what was.

But still, I was kayaking. The mountains stood big-shouldered under a sky that darkened dramatically as a thunderstorm rumbled over the east moraine. The trails are opening up, shaking off the late season snow. The days are warm finally, tinged with that golden glow.

What is now is not what was.

That's the key. I may never live in a place as wild as Alaska again, a place so filled with superlatives. I may never love again as recklessly as I did in my twenties. I may hesitate when it comes to crossing a big river instead of jumping in.

But all I can do is go with what is. Love the little kayak that I have, and the clear water under my boat, the feel of being in a boat you wear. Because someday this too will be what was. I want to say that I was there.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

what have I done?

Let me say this. I love my log cabin. I really do. I love looking up at the beams and the walls. I love coming home to it after years of uninspired rancher style houses with soulless vinyl siding and cookie cutter kitchens. I love waking up in the loft and looking out at the mountains.

But there are moments when I find myself in a mini panic attack. I have thoughts like this: I don't really like my job all that much. I mean, it has its moments, but for at least five more years? What about going to Antarctica for six months? Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail? Living on a tropical island? No. Noooooo. NOOOOOOO!

Of course, I am not sure I really want to do those things. But it's a lot harder to just take off when you have a chunk of real estate that you are indebted to. I had to buy a LAWNMOWER. And a refrigerator. And a couch. It's all very non-wildernessy, non-adventuresome stuff.


In the meantime, I love my cabin. Look:

Friday, June 18, 2010

moving up


All of our seasonals are on board now; it is a motley crew of older and younger people, all swathed in either fleece or wool, packer boots or hikers depending on whether they come from a ranching background or more suburban. They have been sitting drowzily in "orientation", learning about how to run the radios, how to talk to visitors in the backcountry, and how to fill out timesheets. Soon we release them to the wilderness, like butterflies.

I knew when I took this job that it meant the end of week-long fieldwork trips. I'll be able to get out now and then, to check outfitter camps, but other things keep me chained to my cube: planning, permits, meetings. Some days I am okay with it. I sacrificed my knees and my heart to the mountains long ago, giving up relationships and trudging under a heavy load. I never could fit into communities because I was always gone. I couldn't choose my adventures; they were dictated by the ebb and flow of the visitors. Raining? Thunderstorms? Snow? I went anyway.

But it still tugs at me a little when I see the others, just back from a trip, sunburnt and sparkling from time spent outdoors. I tell myself that I have the weekends to roam, two and sometimes three days where I can go where I want, when I want. I'm not stuck with incompatible field partners. I can laze by a creek in the sun. I don't have to always, always press on.

Still I wonder how people do it. How do they go to work every day never feeling the sun on their face, a breeze through their hair? For thirty years? It's clear to me that I need a plan of escape, some loophole that will allow me to be outside but not living in my car. I'm not sure how yet, but it will come to me.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

It's kind of like camping!

Well...I am a cabin owner. I've always wanted to live in a cabin, and now I do. I went over there yesterday to evaluate where everything will fit in a 1,000 square foot house with one closet. My biggest concern is (as always) the outdoor gear! Where will the myriad sleeping bags, tents, kayak stuff, and sundry camping stuff reside? Luckily there is a shed, though not of large proportions. I think rubber totes are in my future.

What does all this have to do with wilderness? Well, the cabin is...rustic. The "kitchen" consists of a dark corner with a sink,a miniscule stove, and the kind of fridge you see in dorm rooms. I wonder what these people ate. But I digress. Shelves? A couple. Drawers? None.

It's just like camping! In fact, it's like camping in one of the recreation cabins that the Forest Service rents out in Alaska. Only nicer. And no mice. And bears trying to break in.

I always knew I didn't want to live in an ordinary house. Now I don't.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

the river's too high


Up on the east fork of the Lostine, the bridge is out. Tumbled into the water by the floods and snowmelt, it is gone. I stood at the water's edge, calculating. How deep is the flow, how strong is the current? Once I was good at this, a scholar of river crossings. As a wilderness ranger in Idaho, I crossed them all: skinny logs washed by the outflow from Walker Lake, waist-deep fords in the swift water above Grandjean. Sometimes I slid across a log on my butt, an inelegant but effective approach.

The thing about a river crossing is that if you need to come back, it can rise two or more feet in the afternoon as the snow slowly melts up high. The river doesn't care if you are stranded on the other side, or how badly you want to continue your hike. You drove all this way, you planned this hike, and now what? Don't expect sympathy from the river.

In the old days, I almost always crossed. I talked myself into it, putting on the sandals, unbuckling the pack waist belt, casting about for a stick to turn myself into a tripod. When a woman alone died on the South Fork of the Baron, I told myself she had made mistakes: slipped off a log, kept her pack buckled.

Today I am more cautious. I'm twenty years from the girl I was then, and life feels more precious. There are other hikes, days ahead when this river will subside and I can cross without even getting boots wet.

I follow another hiker back down the trail. She turned around too. We'll go back to the trail junction and try the West Fork. Eventually a thick blanket of snow will turn both of us back from this trail too.

It would be easy to think of this as a wasted day, a long drive with nothing to show for it but turning back. I fret a little bit as I head for the car. I should have gone up the tram with the skiers, I think. Or: I should have hiked Freezeout.

But then I pass a lazy section of river, clear and sweet. This is where I crossed last summer with Brian when we headed up to a secret lake with no trail. I feel sad for a minute, remembering that day.

But then I realize: no trail, and no life, can stay the same. Bridges wash out. People move away. What is left behind is different. It can be just as beautiful.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Girls Doing Stuff Part Two

The downside of adventure is that things can go very wrong, very fast. When they do, there is always a storm of second-guessing. Abby, the girl I wrote about before, is being rescued from way out in the Indian Ocean after her sailboat lost its mast. She is lucky. A hundred years ago, she probably would have vanished without a trace. But then, a hundred years ago, nobody would have "let" a sixteen year old girl sail around the world alone.

People are critical of her parents for letting her go. (If she had succeeded, like Jessica did last month, nobody would have said a word about her parents). But I disagree. I think parents protect their kids way too much these days. What's up with kids having I-phones at nine years old? Somehow we all survived back in the day with being sent outside to play in the woods and cruise around the neighborhood. (I still remember hearing a big bell summoning a neighbor's kid to dinner, and the lady across the street screaming "TEEEEERRRRRRYYYYY" when it was time for Terry to come in). We didn't have computer games, or Wii, or cell phones. Come to think of it, there were very few overweight kids either.

I think it's great that Abby had a dream and her parents let her pursue it. It's better than growing up afraid and staying on the sidewalk.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Trail Thoughts

12:00. Can't stand this office one more minute. It's sunny for once. I know! I'll go check on the SCA trail crew. I'll sneak past my minions down at the barn. Hahahahaha escape! Oops. They saw me. Oh well, I'm the boss.

1:30. Finally at the trailhead. Sure are a lot of tourists at the lake. Thank goodness I didn't buy that cabin here. They would have driven me crazy. Look, there's some people walking slowly. Must overtake. This trail looks so different now that it's summer. I'm used to seeing it in winter, when the snow covers over all the rocks. Shorts at last. It's late though, I'll turn around at the junction, crew or no crew.

2:00. Where is that trail crew? Check out the river. It is really racing down the canyon, all whitewater. You could never cross it right now. We are in a state of flood emergency--roads washed away and everything. The main byway is gone--we're cut off. I like it.

2:30 Here I am at the Ice Lake junction. That bridge is slowly deteriorating. It looks much sketchier than it did last year. Earlier this winter we hiked in here and felled a big dead tree that we will use to make a new hiker bridge. Hey! There's the SCA camp. Looks nice and tidy. Maybe they went up the main trail. I'll just go up for a half hour and see. Why is this stupid Cher song stuck in my head?

3:00. There's the crew in their bright yellow hard hats, taking a break. Can't remember their names immediately. Can't get a read on them, if they're excited to be out here. They should be, look at this place! Big snowy mountains, a meadow to camp in. listen to the river all night long. Why did I ever stop doing trail crew? I guess I'll just hike up another half hour and see if I can find the wilderness therapy group that is up here someplace. Maybe I shouldn't have told them about all the ticks at Indian Crossing. They didn't seem too thrilled about that.

3:30. The therapy group is elusive. Did they go all the way to Six Mile? I want to go to Six Mile. It's still another mile and a half though. Better not. Wish I had brought some food. Look at all these big trees the trail crew has to cut. Now I remember why I stopped doing trail crew. Better turn around. Look, fresh bear poop. Where's my pepper spray? Should I go to Costa Rica? Our day will come...and we'll have everything. Think of another song, quick.

4:00. There's the SCA crew again, sawing a tree with the crosscut. Better warn them about the bear poop. Also talk about what they should focus on. They won't get all this trail done, not with all the work there is. Okay, bye trail crew. Have fun out here.

4:30. Here I am at the Ice Lake junction again. Still looks snowy up at Ice Lake. Wish I had some food. Only 3 miles back now. Drink more water, it's hot. Still stuck with Cher song. I wonder if I should follow the track my novel seems to be taking. A character is hijacking it. Oops, almost did a face plant.

5:00. Here comes Wes and five tourists on a day ride. They look kind of nervous, clutching their saddle horns. Good, now I can check off an outfitter inspection too. Wes says the river's too high to cross at Seven Mile. The guide in back asks if I want a horse. No, I'd rather walk. Sure are a lot of rocks in this trail. Wish I had some food.

5:30. There's the hydro plant and the road. I'm back out. What will I eat first? Wish I could stay out there forever. Our day will come..Curses.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

What's in YOUR car?

I was driving along the usual Hurricane Creek-Enterprise route and I decided that what we carry in our cars shows who we are. Unless you are lucky enough to live someplace where you never need to drive (Sitka comes to mind, or you are compulsive about a clean car, you probably haul along a slew of stuff just so you will be ready for any opportunity. So what's in my car? Here goes:

1. Stool, for standing on to take my kayak on and off my truck.

2. Kayak paddle. In case a circumnavigation of Wallowa Lake presents itself.

3. Skort. Just because.

4. Rain jacket. Because it's been raining a lot lately (unusual for here. The 39 road just washed away! Rivers at flood stage! It's cool!)

5. Sleeping bag. So I can camp wherever I want.

6. Bike.

7. Running shoes. Multi-purpose footwear!

8. Trekking poles (steep hikes)

9. Water bottle.

10. My handblown glass from Mutiny Brewing. The "locals" have glasses for each pub. They are beautiful! Mine looks like a snow storm. (Mom, I mostly drink lemonade).

11. An energy bar, because I hate to be without food at any time.

12. A book, because you never know when you might want to find a sunny spot by a river.

13. Warm fuzzies, because the weather here is moody.

14. Yoga mat, although it has not left my car for some time. Need to do yoga. Need to do yoga.

15. Pen, for writing on scraps of paper whenever I get an inspiration.

Note: Not a purse, item of makeup or hairbrush in the bunch (although I do cart along a hefty supply of hair ties).

Your turn! What's in YOUR car?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

smoke from a distant fire

Alaska is burning. Billy sends me dispatches from the front, from somewhere in the interior. I remember the fire season that we walked through black spruce together, mopping up after a fire on the Kuskokwim River, next to the small village of Kalskag. While we leaned on our shovels, a man came up to us holding a dead porcupine by the tail, pleased that he had caught dinner. Later that night, a man fell off the barge, disappearing forever. We camped in a blueberry patch, two Native crews and me, until the rain drove us out.

Another time I lay on a sunwarmed hill on another fire, near Russian Mission, my crew lulled into laziness by the globe-like blueberries and the task of walking eleven miles of fireline back to our camp. A hundred thousand acre fire, and there were only a handful of us, cold-trailing the edges, left out under a big tundra sky.

When I think about fire, there are things I miss. I miss how crews of strangers could bond together tight as glue, everyone watching your back, the shared boredom and terror creating friendships that stuck for years. I miss the excitement of hiking in to a smoke column, the way it made me feel alive, every sensation running like electricity through my body, in a way that nothing else ever could. I miss night shift, the embers of a sleeping fire spread out in a glowing carpet.

There were things that were not so good, and it is easy to forget them. Things like the searing smoke forcing itself down my lungs. Struggling to close the gap as we marched single file behind a crew boss with something to prove. Being gone, vanishing from my normal life for weeks, leaving relationships to wither.

I miss being a firefighter, though. I don't go very much anymore, not enough to call myself one. Some of it is identity, putting a label on myself that erased all my self-doubt about being strong, enviable, different. Not ordinary. I realize that this is false, that I am the person I have become, and saying I am a firefighter just to have a golden aura around myself is not something I need to aim for anymore.

Alaska burns, and I am not there. I comfort myself with all the things I can do now. Backpack. Make friends. Make plans. Stay. Sometimes it is not enough.

When you cease to be something that you were, something that possessed your soul for decades, it is like a death of sorts. I miss the girl with the fat braid, the one who could swing a lead pulaski and who grins at me from old pictures. Realistically I know she is still in me. She hasn't gone anywhere. But on days like today, it feels like she has.

The letting go. Learning to do this gracefully and without regrets. That, I continue to learn.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I guess this rock star dream's gone away

Curses! I didn't get the wilderness writing residency. For those of you not in the know, it's a seven month stay in a cabin surrounded by wilderness on the Rogue River. No electricity. Radio telephone. Access by a 2 hour bad road. You caretook the place, wrote when you wanted, and got a stipend.

Darn it, I would have been perfect for this. Perfect! What were they thinking? I did get a nice note from John Daniel, saying that I had an "authentic voice." That was nice.

It would have been challenging, disappearing for over half the year, leaving my job and people I love. But the merging of two things I love--writing and wilderness--was too much of a draw.

When something like this happens, it takes a bit of time to bounce back. You think: I'm not a good enough writer. I'd better just give it up and write Harlequin romances. If those would even be good enough. Life is awful. I'm going to the back yard to eat worms!

But. I will bounce back. There are other dreams out there and I'll dream up another one.

The title is from a song written by Chase, who play his guitar around the valley. It's about giving up on a dream because other people tell you to. His CD isn't available to buy. Yet.