Wednesday, December 30, 2009

shine on, crazy diamond

Sometimes in the wilderness, the going just gets hard. There have been times when I have been wet, cold and afraid. Times when the lake just was too far away, the lightning too close, the trail too steep. Somehow I always found some strength to get back up and move along. Eventually the sun came out, the rain stopped, I arrived at the lake.

You don't want things to be easy all the time, in the wilderness or in life. I know people who sail through their lives without blisters, but it seems like you need those tough spots to fully wallow in the joyful ones. So in the spirit of this thought, here is a short list of some challenges and highlights of 2009 for me. A "What I learned in 2009" if you will.

1. Taking strangers out on a five day kayak patrol with bears, interesting seas, and strange shirtless men is an experience not to be missed! I'll never forget Brooke and our Castaway Island or Amelia and our thousands of floating moon jellyfish.

2. Taking a month off from work to go to Tasmania taught me that there are other ways to live your life than sitting at a desk until the retirement clock beeps. Now I just have to figure out how to get there.

3. Love is always worth it, even if it doesn't last.

4. You can love someone, or someplace, and still be able to leave it. You can love other places just as much, and other people.

5. Facing your worst fear (being charged by a bear in my case) and surviving is the most empowering feeling ever.

There you have it. Bring on 2010!

Monday, December 28, 2009

slow shoeing

The snow? It's terrible. Let me backtrack. There is no such thing as terrible snow. Just like there is no terrible weather: just poor clothing choices. But I found this weekend that, good, bad, indifferent, the snow right now is a challenge.

We snowshoed up to about the 8000' elevation and it was vexing, sinking deep, nearly to the knees with each step. Jerry, who is kind of a ski snob, calls snowshoeing "slow shoeing" and it definitely was. It took us two hours and change to go two miles. Extreme snowshoeing, I call it. When it was my turn to break trail I strode grimly on, determined to stay ahead even of the dogs (It worked,they were no fools and stayed in our tracks).

It was beautiful though, in an eerie way. This area was mightily burned in the Canal Fire of 1989, and while fuzzy new lodgepoles are coating the slopes, old silver snags still stand as far as I can see. It was sunny and the ground gleamed with silver--surface hoar, I was told, an icy top layer. (There's probably more scientific ways to talk about this, but it was flaky and glistening and pretty. Sort of like mica. I expected it to make a dry rustling noise as I passed through it).

The best thing was that down in the valley town was encased in deep, soul-destroying fog, and here I was in glorious sunshine. I'm still sun-starved after living in Alaska. It was well worth the epic nature of the trip.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The absence of flight

In Alaska, our lives revolved around the ocean and the sky. Sometimes they were mirrors of each other, wild and gray, clouds hanging low to kiss the water. We had our own language of charts and tides, gales and rain. Our food came from the sea and everything else came by air.

Here, six hundred miles from the ocean, this is a terrestrial life. The people here are tied to the land more than the sky. They speak of distances in hours-six hours to Portland, ten to Seattle. They do not fly.

It took me a few weeks to notice the emptiness of the sky. Far off any commercial jet route, no white trails scribe the sky. Living in Alaska for so long I forgot the constant presence of float planes, Ken's souped up Cessna taking off from the harbor, John over at Harris Air headed south for the weekly Port Alexander shuttle. The buzzing of these planes was so common that it became a background music that ran through the days.

Here if a plane flies over we look up. Most likely it is Joe, bringing hunters in to Red's Horse Ranch. We stand there and watch and wonder. Once the plane is gone, the silence is complete. There is no incoming tide, no seiner humming by, no cruise ship.

Landlocked, it is a different way of looking at the world. It can make me feel a little desperate for the slow rock of the waves or the heart-sinking moment of takeoff. As time goes on I am sure I will find ways to live in this valley that will become as familiar as those things that defined my old life. I need to slow down, have patience, with myself and with this place.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

a manuscript, adrift on the ocean

I think of my submissions as little ships, sent out bravely into the shark-filled waters. Once out of sight of shore they float for days, weeks, months. Often they limp home, bruised and battered, emblazoned with the words "not right for us at this time" (Does that mean that on a full moon Tuesday, perhaps, they might be right? Hmm..). Other times they do not return at all, captured by pirates perhaps, sunk by uncharted rocks. Only occasionally do they reach a destination and arrive at a fabled literary shore, if I dare take this flimsy metaphor any farther.

Today I had two pieces of news. My firefighting memoir, the one I have wrestled with in the late hours of the night, punching it down, re-shaping it, ruthlessly cutting... was rejected, though with a lovely letter from the agent (Janet Reid, she has a great blog, google & check it out). Dismay! Heartbreak! Postponement of retirement! Mini tantrum!

Another email brought the surprising news that a short story about Steens Mountain that I dashed off in about five minutes and submitted to an online Oregon celebration site is going to be in an anthology! That makes two anthologies this year for a stunning monetary gain of $100! Guess I can't afford that cabin at the lake just yet. However, it is still something. Happiness! Elation! Shirking of work to celebrate!

Well, I guess I will slog back to my writers group and ask for advice. I'm not ready to give up just yet. Perhaps with an overhaul back at the yard, a new mast, something to make it seaworthy, my little manuscript can sail forth once again. Watch out agents!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The shoe tree

Do shoe trees only exist in Oregon? I've seen three of them in my life: one west of Burns, one south, and one here, on the way to Salt Creek Summit. In case you haven't seen one, it is a roadside tree, typically deciduous, into which people have tossed up all sort of shoes and boots. The one near here is particularly delightful because some whimsical soul threw up a pair of blue flippers, way up high.

I love shoe trees. I ponder each pair of shoes: the high heel bridal ones, the stout hiking boots, the inevitable sneakers. What's the story behind all of this footwear? And who started this concept, and how did it migrate across the state?

What's so endearing about shoe trees is that there aren't very many of them. That would dim the mystery, quell the excitement, if there were trees festooned everywhere. The fact that there are only a few, popping up on some deserted stretch of road when I least expect it, makes them fascinating. And there's the quirkiness of human nature. Say one person hucks a used pair of shoes in a tree. Ha ha, he thinks, and drives on. How long does it take for someone else to notice them, stop, and think: Hmm. Maybe I should contribute a pair?

Now that I think about it, why wouldn't I expect to find a shoe tree in this remote, off-kilter part of the world? Here we have an odd stew of Republicans, hippies and hermits, musicians, crazy backcountry skiers, and a gathering that calls itself the "Sarah Palin Discussion Group." (A digression: really, how much is there to discuss?) We have no Walmarts, no stoplights, and no airport. We have a bunch of impossibly tall mountains and a big glacier-carved lake and creeks and rivers and a canyon that is deeper than the Grand. And we have a shoe tree. I'm pretty happy about all those things.

Friday, December 18, 2009

pushing the season

It's still that inbetween time: too much snow to hike, not enough to ski well. Today we went up to Fergi, the local ski area, to try out the new nordic trails they have marked. Personally I felt that they were cross country trails laid out by good backcountry skiers, as evidenced by the screaming downhill run (and subsequent fall I took to avoid hitting a tree) halfway through. Jerry and Dana, both good skiers, watched in amusement and tried to teach me to snowplow.

It's inbetween: we are still getting rain in town and up there, bare patches dot the forest. It's an uneasy time, longing for the sun-washed trails but settling for a bleak patchwork of barren trees and sodden snow underfoot. I'm in between too, halfway to settling into a different life. This is the time when it could go either way. I miss the ocean with an intensity I never thought. I thought I would miss other things: the wildness of the mountains, the soft squelching of the muskegs under my boots. But it is the ocean I miss, the tides you could set a watch by, the deep mysteriousness of it all.

So today we pushed the season, walking gingerly on our skis through the stumps and gliding on the covered places. It would have been easier to stay home and wait for the weather to make up its mind, just like it would have been easier for me to stay by the ocean. But something, maybe the same thing, called me out to see what it was like today. The same thing made me stand on the ferry heading south.

What am I looking for? I don't know. Maybe I like it this way: in between, surprising, never boring. You can wake up one day to a blizzard or it can be 50 degrees and sunny, like it was in Imnaha today. I like unpredictability. I like surprise.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Skiing for Dollars

This is my week for snow park duty. I complain about the snow park because it's stressful. We only get so much money for plows and deciding to plow now might mean no money when we really need it. When on duty the luckless soul must sit near a phone for a week, waiting for that 4 am call from Bryson saying that there is enough snow to plow. Then you second guess yourself: did it really need plowing? To say the least of the people who call to complain that it needs plowing. And the need to rush back to fill out the daily diary...

But there is one unexpected perk for being snow park duty officer. I get to ski! This comes after my inspection of the plowing and the dreaded toilet cleaning. (Funny, one of my first government jobs involved this task. Looks like I have come full circle).

Today it was challenging due to the deep, unstable snow. My skis were completely buried and there were times when I was past my knees. It wasn't really a glide, but a slog. It took an hour to go two miles. I could hear the snow settling with a whoomph!

But it was beautiful, the only sound a light wind ruffling the trees and some sugar snow falling. Much better than sitting at a desk. I miss those field days I used to take for granted. Working outside is one of the reasons I started in this outfit. Sitting behind dirty windows that don't open, it's easy to grow disillusioned with the whole business. Nepa! Lotus Notes! Stagnant meetings! What am I doing here anyway? In my mind I'm still a twenty-five year old wilderness ranger.

At least there is the snow park, the troublesome, vexing, why-can't-the-county-plow-this snow park. Thank goodness for the snow park. It keeps me sane.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

breaking trail

Today we walked up the Falls Creek trail in our snowshoes. This is the trail that eventually climbs to Legore Lake, the highest lake in Oregon. Jerry wants to play hockey on this lake which I think would be kind of fun. We climbed above the waterfall, the first people to hike on the trail since the new snow. Below us fog was filling in the valley; intermittent snow filtered through the trees.

I have a destination problem, which means that it is hard for me to turn around. I really, really wanted to make it to Legore Lake even though we didn't have a shovel (for clearing off the snow) or even our skates. Also, we discovered, all we had with us were the clothes we were wearing and a bottle of water. And three dogs. Jerry had to go work at Fergi and it wouldn't have been smart for us to keep going. It is winter after all, and only yesterday has it gotten appreciably over zero degrees. So we got above the mountain mahogany band but not to the first meadow, the halfway point, or to the old miner's cabin.

It was a good idea turn around: we were only at about 6,000 feet and the lake is just below 10,000. The snow is probably several feet deep up there now. The lake, most likely slumbering under a blanket of white. In my lake skating experience, conditions have to be right for the perfect sheet of glass. Most times they freeze unevenly, with treacherous bumps. Twigs can freeze into the ice, tripping the unwary. Wind is the key.

So most likely we would have been hungry, cold, unable to skate and coming down in the dark. In the old days I would have gone for it but I seem to have acquired some element of practicality. (I remember crossing the straits from Mackinac Island to Round Island in an open canoe, armed only with wine coolers. I don't remember us having life vests. Hopefully we did).

Legore Lake, I'm coming back someday. Sleep on.

Friday, December 11, 2009

house hunting

Lately I've become obsessed with house hunting. Especially log houses with acreage. The house at left is on Old Ski Run Road (which would be a cool address). I had high hopes for this one and tramped in the snowed-in driveway to look. It has seven acres and the logwork is beautiful. It's not even that big. Private. A creek runs through the property.
But. It's not finished ("roughed in" I guess is the term for it). The seller wants $290,000, which probably is a screaming deal considering the location and the acreage. However, not being a construction worker or married to one, I would have to either pay someone to do things like cabinets, sinks, toilets, etc, or toil away learning in my spare time. I'd have to get a construction loan regardless because no way would it be financed as a regular loan. Bottom line is, I just can't afford it on one income. Bummer.
There are other possibilities, but either they aren't for sale, are off the county plow road and would require high levels of shoveling and/or skiing to the car, are out at the touristy side of the lake or are just too expensive.
House hunting is kind of like dating. I've rushed in too quickly and bought a house because of potential, only later to discover that it was too much of a project or in the wrong neighborhood. I've also paid too much and gained too little. The key is patience. Sooner or later the cute little log cabin of my dreams will come along. I'll be ready for it.

random sub zero thoughts

You're welcome, planet, I walked to work again. I suspect it was about one degree due to the frosted hair and frozen eyelashes. Yesterday evening my I-Pod quit working because it was so cold. I actually don't remember the last time I drove to work and I snarl at the cars outside (although it is possible today that I am the only person in the building, since everyone here works four ten hour days, or at least alleges to do so). Honestly I don't understand why more people won't walk or bike to work. It's not like it's that far.

Just some random thoughts today as I struggled to breathe frosty air today:

1. Why can't things stay the same? I understand that the world is in a constant state of motion, and I guess people should be too; but I want to go back to the way things were sometimes, to suspend time like I was caught in amber. My life has changed so much in the last two years; sometimes I was the instrument of change, other times it feels like one big earthquake, rearranging my personal topography. How many times can people bounce back? The earth bounces back from the weight of ice; that is what it feels like I am doing right now. Slowly, an inch a year.

2. Will I ever sell a book? Or should I just become a dabbler, and just call it my hobby? Maybe take up something else? The worst are the agents you never hear from...

3. Should I buy a five acre piece of land and build my own cabin, set down some roots, or keep renting and on the move every few years?

4. Or, should I actually do what I've been threatening and move someplace for a year, immerse myself in writing, instead of working ten hour days pushing paper?

5. Why, oh why do people insist on these godawful Christmas lights all around their property? Okay, Santa on the biplane is kind of cute, but a fence full of candycanes? Come on people. Where do you think your electricity comes from?

6. Wow, what a beautiful sunrise over the snowy Wallowas.

Thoughts and suggestions on any of the above are welcome.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

radio collaring animals

So today I was engrossed in the happy task of writing a decision memo. Not my decision, but the Forest Supervisor's, because he is too busy to write his own. This one is to capture bighorn sheep with a big net and take them to be "processed" and fitted with lovely radio collars. Did I mention this takes place in wilderness?

Sometimes I think we gather too much data. Bighorns are facing an uncertain future for sure. So were the Florida panthers--I helped with a capture when I lived there. And the culprit is us, by hacking and draining and introducing domestic livestock and building roads and trailer parks and trophy homes. With radio collars, we are told, someone in Fish and Game can gather important information about what the sheep do and where they go. Somehow this will be used to help the bighorns, though this is not detailed.

Subversively as I type I wonder why we are doing this. Don't we already know where they go? John saw a bunch of them near the national historic trail yesterday off the Dug Bar road. Why not just deploy some researchers with notepads? Is this too old school?

I just can't imagine calmly munching away and suddenly a helicopter appears, flies low over you, making you run for it. Someone leans out and a big net goes over you. You are flown underneath to another area where you now have to wear a bulky collar for years.

It bugs me. Why can't we get at the real problem? Why do there have to be domestic sheep allotments on the Payette? Why do we let people swarm over every inch of ground? This summer I saw a small flock (are they called flocks?) of sheep above Frances Lake, doing their sheep thing. They slowly moved over a vertical face in the night, happy and undisturbed. Years ago mountain goats were taken out of the canyon and moved somewhere else that apparently was lacking in goats. Can you imagine waking up one day in a new territory?

I read you shouldn't write about work on your blog because you never know if someone important (Hi Forest Supervisor) will read it. So here is my disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are soley of this blogger and do not represent the official stance of the Forest Service. And, here's your memo to sign.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


I just have one thing to say.

Someone who will stand at the bottom of a hill to catch you as you hurtle down on skinny skis, afraid of falling, is someone worth keeping around.

That's it.

Just so this is worth your while here is a photo from my hike on Saturday up the West Fork of the Wallowa. One set of tracks went past the Ice Lake turnoff. Quiet, sunny and sweet.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Hurricane Creek

This is a picture of Legore Lake. It's cool.

So lately I've been spending a lot of time at Hurricane Creek. It's become an expedition now that it's winter. I'm glad I have studded tires and four wheel drive because without it I'm not sure I could make it, except on foot. Pretty soon it might be too snowy and I'll have to stop at the school bus turnaround. But I keep going anyway, because it's one of those places where I belong.

I think we all have these, some little acre of land where we let out a long breath we've been holding and think: I've come home. I've found a few of these in my travels. The Tranquil Bluff trail on the Island, a winding leaf-strewn path that wound around to British Landing, never with anyone else on it. Bighorn Basin in the White Cloud Mountains. Fishhook Creek in the Sawtooths. The long Oregon coast beaches.

So right now mine is Hurricane Creek. I love the big meadows on the trail when I come out of the dark woods and into the light. In fall the glowing larches made it look like there were a thousand individual rays of sun on the slopes. Now that it's cold the waterfalls at Slick Rock are frozen into sleek icicles. I'm already planning next summer's adventures: I'll turn off at Deadman Meadow and find mysterious Deadman Lake, rumored to be difficult to reach. Or I'll go back to Legore Lake, the highest lake in Oregon, and camp in the upper basin.

I wish I could live along Hurricane Creek instead of in my nondescript rental hemmed in by the neighbors with a past and the others who have mining equipment on display in their yard (one of these days I'm going to sneak out and paste my Pebble Creek Mine protest bumpersticker on one of their "decorations"). But nobody is selling except for the people at the foot of the road who optimistically want almost half a million for their house with many carpets.

Luckily it isn't too far--take a right from town, slow down on the scary curves and head past the Grange. Pass the expensive place, the new cute cedar house that I want, Jerry's A-frame, the miner's shacks and the pottery place. Past the campground, closed now for winter and another mile or two of trees and creek and there you are.

By the way there are no hurricanes on Hurricane Creek. It's named for the massive winds that blow downcanyon. I've seen what they've left in their wake--hundreds of trees snapped off, lying prone on the ground. It's impressive.

People say it's too dark in winter, too dusty in summer, too crowded with tourists wielding trekking poles. Maybe all of that is true. Maybe there's other places I haven't found yet. For now though I'll keep making my way up to Hurricane Creek. I'm excited to see what it has to show me each time I go.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Why are you here?

I'm writing a novel set in Alaska and I've read three segments of it in my writers group. Last night I finished reading, there was the customary silence when people try to decide what they want to say, and Rick said, "Your descriptions of Alaska make me wonder, why are you here and not still living there?"

I thought about it as I walked home under a nearly full moon. It's true that my life seems less unique than it did there. There I could and often did commute to work in a floatplane, kayak with whales or run into a bear on a trail as part of an ordinary day. The scenery was pretty amazing too: a bubbling mixture of kelp, sea otters, salmon and mountains that rose from sea level to alpine, treeless meadows. Even the weather was unpredictable: expecting rain, you could wake up to full-on sun.

In the Enterprise library an old woman accosted me, one of those you see coming and cringe, knowing you are in for it. After exclaiming that I had unique eyes, she proceeded to ask, "Do you ever wonder why we are in this place at this moment in time?"

I've never believed that things happen for a reason; that there's some neat, pre-packaged destiny already labeled for us. To me that seems like abdicating responsibility for your choices. It's easier for me to believe it's all random, molecules and energy colliding together without a purpose. You make your own destiny, good or bad.

So why am I here? I wonder. What made me pick up and leave from a place that still tugs at me now and then? I miss the closer connection to nature; knowing when high tide was going to be; my days and seasons punctuated by events: salmon returning, whales coming closer to shore. I miss the closer community: people who are bound together by living on an island in the middle of an ocean.

Why not go back? I might, someday. There are a lot of places I'd like to go back to, to finish something left undone or see how it looks through older eyes. Mackinac Island. Sawtooth Valley. Grants Grove. For now I'll write about them, try to understand why I was there at some point in time and why I'm here now.

It would be easier to think my life is on some cosmic pattern. But the one psychic I talked to back in Florida, one who helped find missing kids and who was at the refuge on a visit with her husband, said I would live in Wyoming and have three kids. So I don't believe. What I do believe is this: just like people, there are perfect places for you everywhere. There isn't just one. You go there with no expectations and settle yourself into its boundaries, hoping for a good fit.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


Well, it's officially winter. I tried to hold on to summer for as long as I could, but it slipped away. After seven years with scant sun, I was greedy: I wanted it to stick around longer. But it snowed and the snow has stayed.

I spent seven winters in Forida, seven years where I didn't see snow. In the mornings we headed out on the swamp buggy, bundled in our sweatshirts, but by noon it was a cloudless seventy degrees.

In Alaska the winters were fickle. Some years all we had was rain, drearily falling and freezing. Other winters the snow came down to the road. It wasn't something you could count on.

I think winter here is going to be more serious. Up in the mountains the lakes are frozen; snow has drifted over the trails. It's going to be a long time before I can get up there again. The nights are long and dark and full of stars.

People here assume that I am a backcountry skier; they look askance when I say I can't telemark. I am redeemed somewhat when I say I cross country ski. It's like living on the ocean but not knowing how to swim--inconceivable.

So six months of winter, real, true winter, not pretend winter this time. This is the kind where you can either stay in your house and hope it goes away or get out there. I'm not always a fan: I don't like keeping track of mittens and hats and carrying survival gear. I like sundresses and sandals and swimming in the lake. I don't like storing my tent away and shoveling and wondering if I can make it over the pass. But I've lived in the swamp, the desert, the rainforest. All of those were perfect in their own way. Now I live in a place with winter. I'll try it out and see if it sticks.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

the elusiveness of everything

There is a cabin in Klag Bay we called the Ballard place. Decades ago a woman and her husband tried to mine gold there. Climbing around in the alder, we found traces of their lives: a shed, partially damaged by fire; rails laid down to transport tailings from adits above. The house had fallen into disrepair; against better judgment we climbed the failing stairs to poke around inside.

Over the years I went there, scavengers had carried off the good stuff: an old time radio, wooden furniture, a unique doorknob. Clothes still hung from hooks and tins of food bulged on shelves. The best things had no value though. On the windowsills someone had placed pieces of beach glass, worn smooth from tide and waves. They were all translucent colors: white, blue, green. It was hard to say what they had once been: wine bottles? They were transformed into something rare and wonderful.

Hans grew impatient and paced outside, reminding us that the falling tide waited for no woman. But I was fascinated by the shards of glass and let them run through my fingers. I kind of wanted to take them, but I knew that in my ordinary house back in town, they would lose their mystery. They would become just more junk to haul around, a story only I would know about.

I haven't been to the Ballard cabin in awhile. Natalie and I went there on the ill-fated kayak patrol two summers ago, briefly escaping the monotony of the endless rain to look inside. Someday the cabin will collapse; the windows are broken out now and the roof was uncertain the last time I saw it.

Nothing is permanent, even the sea; long ago it came up higher on the shore than it does now. We saw the evidence back in the woods, tall cliffs showing where it used to be. It has fallen back a long ways. Once, ice covered all of what we saw: the mountains, the beach, the sea. The rocks we walked across to get back to our kayaks would crumble into sand eventually. Others would paddle their boats to this site and look at the beach glass, glowing faintly in the windowsills of the cabin.

There are times when I want to freeze a moment; it's hard to let go of a place, a time when everything came together in a perfect second. But the tide was falling, it was time to go. We moved away from the Ballard cabin and the beach glass into the rest of our lives.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Things I think about during meetings

Lately my life has been consumed by long meetings. It's a sad fact that you can work to protect the wilderness but a large chunk of time is spent sitting around a table with a bunch of other luckless souls who would rather be outside. To pass the time, I think of other things, like..

1. My dream cabin in the woods. On really heinous meetings I draw up entire floor plans.

2. How many different states I've fought fire in. Then I try to remember the names of all the fires. This can take up hours.

3. Stuff I want to write, stuff I've written, and everything in between.

4. Antarctica. I'd like to go there and see the Dry Valleys.

5. The relative attractiveness (or un) of the other participants in the meetings. And their choice of clothing.

6. Plan a great escape--quit the job, throw caution to the wind, eat chocolate, chase dogs with sticks, live in a fire lookout.

7. How strong the impulse is to suddenly behave inappropriately. Laugh hysterically, kiss somebody, yell "Stop the madness!"

8. How much I want to strangle the wise ass who likes to make comments that only serve to extend the meeting. Likewise the two people who discuss a subject avidly when it only has interest to them and the rest of us are held hostage.

9. Wish I could actually go to some of the places we are talking about.

10. Add up how many tax dollars are being used for this six hour meeting. Resist the urge to lie on the floor and take a nap.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Swaying on a log across a creek swollen with spring snowmelt. Searching for purchase on a crumbling rock face. Pointing skis downhill. The wilderness has taught me to trust, to leap, to take a chance.

"We'd better do something, even if it's wrong," Roger used to say as we loaded up the swamp buggy to go cut open fire trails. He said it when we were shaded up, watching a stubborn backfire chase itself across the muhly grass prairies. He would say it when we had no idea what we should do, but we knew action was required.

Sometimes the choices we made were spectacularly wrong. I've chosen the wrong way down a wrinkle in the earth's skin and been cliffed out. I've battled my way across a river, losing my thermarest and a tooth in the process. I've chosen the wrong man, the wrong trail a handful of times. Roger took two cubies down to the crew below and was trapped by fire.

It can be paralyzing, the deciding. Melissa used to leap from the skiff as we approached the cobble beach and I admired her ability to trust herself, to balance in the waves and uncertain footing. "What's the worst that can happen?" she shrugged.

The truth is, it can be pretty bad, making the wrong choice. In Alaska we heard about it all the time--the boats that flipped, the planes that disappeared. In the fire world, the stories piled up, brothers and sisters who did what we would have done,but who lost the roll of the dice.

I'm packing up boxes from a failed romance. I have made the wrong choice, but it's no different than the other times. I'm sure, given the opportunity, that Roger would carry water down to the crew again. That's the kind of guy he was. As for me, I still choose to cross the creeks, climb the cliffs and risk my heart.

There are times when it would be easier to be a different type of woman, one who lets life happen to her, who doesn't feel the urge to travel and live scattered across the country, moving on every few years. But I can't fit myself into that mode, no matter how I try. I want to see what's out there. I want to do something, even if it's wrong.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

why I like mountains better than men

Mountains don't leave you. They don't pull disappearing acts, change their minds, spin you around like a washing machine. Well, sure, they crumble, infinitesimally, one little pebble at a time. Someday the mountains I see outside my window will be gone. I know this. But when I am in the mountains I know the meaning of forever. I can count on these sturdy blocks of basalt and limestone and granite to stick around. I like that permanence.

You can't be disappointed in a mountain. They don't pretend to be anything other than what they are--alder-choked, steep, rocky, with snow chutes spilling down their flanks. You know you can die in them, by avalanche, by stumbling on a slimy patch of deer cabbage, by not bringing the right stuff. They don't promise gentleness though, no soft sweet belly that is easy to climb. A mountain tests you. But you know that already as you load up your pack. What you see is usually what you get with mountains. Sometimes you can let yourself be fooled, following a gentle line that turns brutal, desperate hand-holds on decaying rock. But you know this can happen. You expect it. You prepare for it, this betrayal. You learn to like it, pushing yourself to go farther than you have before.

You can love the mountains, love the way an alpenglow kisses the summit, love the cliff face stretching down in a clean, joyful arc to the valley floor. And this is enough. You don't need the mountains to be any different than this. You can lie back on sun-warmed rock, your feet bare, sun washing your face. You can breathe. You can be who you are, someone with a past, slow to understand the way the world works, but the mountain doesn't care. It accepts everyone: the slow, the fat, the desperate, the lonely. The mountain doesn't judge.

Don't get me wrong. Men have their place. They are good to come back to after a day in the mountains, a safe haven to recover by the fire while you plot your next adventure. They will sometimes come with you, but often they will talk too much and hike too fast. They will make it a destination not a journey. They will bring their dogs. They will make promises they can't keep. It's better sometimes to go it alone, you and the mountain.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


It's way early and I am up writing. I'm starting on a novel I began years ago. The impulse to write it began out of an attempt to understand the strange world of professional bear hunting guides. They are fascinating men: tall, capable, able to anchor a boat in rough seas, find a way up a mountain. They have stories nobody else has. They love the wilderness; some of them could not live anywhere else. But they lead city men to kill beautiful wild bears, animals they don't even eat, leaving everything but the hide behind. I wanted to know how they reconcile their desire for wilderness with the job that requires that they take an essential part of it out; leave a gap in a wild place that makes it more tame.

So it's not light out yet, the trees only a faint scary outline, and I'm writing. Trying to write more like. I suspect I will never understand the bear guides. I spent a lot of time with them in my last job, helping them bring a boat to shore, standing on the bow to check for rocks. I watched Jim and Mick do a stalk but turn back when they saw it was a sow. I'm glad I never saw a bear killed. Even after I was charged last summer, I don't believe we should have the right and the power to kill something we don't eat or use.

Today I will walk up a mountain in a safer place, where the grizzlies were hunted out years ago. Definitely here I feel much more relaxed; that wild edge is missing. It's easier here without it. I'm not always alert; I slump into the wilderness without wondering what could jump out. Sometimes I miss it though. Those shivery rainy afternoons belting out sixties tunes at the top of our lungs, those deep-set bear tracks in moss bringing a sense of awe and fear, mixed together.

I meant to write about something completely different. Thus the title. Maybe next time.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

moon, stars

Full moon, stars, the faint outline of snow on the mountains. It gets dark here at four thirty, the night falling without subtlety, just one minute dusk, the next dark. No pretense, just like this place. What you see is what you get, sort of. There is an undercurrent though, that you only discover when you have been here awhile. People tell you secrets: Imnaha in winter, to escape the snow. Go into the canyon--it is always just called the canyon--in spring to see flowers. And you find out things too: sweet blackberries in Somers Creek, larch turning golden in fall. I love how slowly the secrets are revealed here. It is a hidden beauty that seeps into the soul.

I love the full moon. It has been so many years since I have seen it. In Alaska it was shy, staying under cover of clouds. Here it is more brazen. It flirts with the mountains. It hangs around the night, rolling around through the immense sky.

I've moved around all my life, pushed by a restless wind. I've seen the moon from a handful of places, from tents deep in the wilderness, from rivers, from the mouths of caves. In kayaks we charted how high the tides would be by its phase.

I walk home with a big moon over my shoulder.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

One last list

I'm at a national wilderness meeting and have to give closing remarks. I fell back on my list idea. This is the last one (maybe):

What I Learned from Wilderness

1. Embrace change. Stand-replacing fires sweep through the forest like a broom and leave space for new growth. The same happens during a lifetime. Trust in the process.
2. Be resilient. Old roads grow over; cabins fall down. The wilderness endures despite how we trample, trammel and abuse it. Know that no bad situation lasts forever.
3. Cultivate patience. Think in geologic time. Breathe.
4. Depend on others. Wilderness is a web of interdependence and that makes it stronger.
5. Flow like a river. If you can’t move a boulder, find a way around it. Dare to make a new channel.
6. Self-prune like the ponderosas. Get rid of excess limbs that weigh you down. Pick a few important things and stick with those to carry with you.
7. Provide refuge. Lend a hand, a shoulder, a shelter for those in need.
8. Play like the bears. Slide down a snowbank; chase your buddy around, wrestle.
9. Try again like the salmon. Keep jumping up the waterfall even if you think it looks impossible.
10. Be majestic. Inspire others. Know your own power and beauty.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The end of an era

I finished my book. really, really finished it.

It feels like the end of a marathon, or a really long epic hike, like the alleged short cut that Ed convinced me to take in the Sierras. Up and down, over passes, he extolled how much time we would save. It ended up being twenty miles, but we found a beautiful teardrop lake I named after myself.

But I digress. The book is done! Well, maybe it will never be a book. But it felt like something I had to write. I hope it honors Roger and all the others who dragged a drip torch and held the line with me.

Back to the kayak story idea now.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

What I learned from the swamp

Since a lot of people liked my list about bears, I thought I would do one about the swamp, aka the Fakahatchee Strand. A strand is a drainage slough in case you were wondering. This one is located in south Florida, a jumbled wonderful wilderness that drains into the Big Cypress swamp.

1. Be who you are. The swamp doesn't pretend to be anything than what it is-a humid, dense, poison ivy filled, wet jungle.

2. Keep your secrets. Some of the rarest orchids, ones that bloom once a year, are only found here. But you have to work to see them and you might never find one. That's what makes it so great when you do.

3. Endure. People have paved it, hacked it, filled it, drained it. But the swamp always wins in the end.

4. Be open to possibilities. In the swamp, inches determine what grows. You can move from a hardwood hammock to a cypress swamp in minutes.

5. Be a safe harbor for those in need. The swamp harbors the endangered Florida panther. There are only fifty left in the world. Without the swamp, they would be extinct.

6. Wait out the bad times. The swamp fills, dries up, fills again. Eventually the rains come; they do every year.

Monday, October 12, 2009


I have been absent from my blog because I have a request from an agent to see a book proposal for my little kayak ranger stories. I am stuck on one of the sample chapters. I had written it before but now I find it horribly awful. So here I sit. I can remember this particular day so well. Hunter and I were flying for the Civil Air Patrol, trying to find a missing plane. It disappeared in September, an unsettled and murky month when things can go either way. You can wake up and the day is scrubbed clean, unfamiliar sunshine reminding you why you live in Southeast Alaska, or you can draw an unlucky card and the wind blows with no mercy, rain falls sideways, and fog coats the peaks so you could swear they don't exist.

The plane had taken off two days before and never made it to its destination, Baranof Warm Springs, on the other side of the island. It's only fifteen miles away, but it is a jumble of peaks, glaciers and bottomless lakes. You can hike it, if you have good knees and an iron will. But you can't usually fly it in September. Instead you have to take the long way, fifty miles around by the ocean.

Ken, who has been flying for forty years, said that he thought they had cartwheeled into Deadman Reach, that the wind could slap you down and you could not recover in time. He said that once he had found himself flying upside down there. Other people swore they were on land, that maybe Erik had gotten confused and flown into a dead end. For a long time we hoped they were alive.

Divers went down but couldn't find anything. If it was down there, the plane could have tumbled along the ocean floor for miles. But no wreckage was ever found.

I remember wanting to see something so badly. We circled styrofoam on the beaches and sheared off trees in Duffield. But we never found a thing. It was hard to come back with nothing, and even harder to realize that we would never, ever know what happened.

Anyway, I'm trying to write about it, but the words don't want to come. Sometimes I think that things need to simmer for years before they can be written. For now I'll just eat Halloween candy and hope for a muse.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

first snow

It is October third and it is snowing! The mountains have disappeared behind a curtain of white. Up at Hurricane Creek it was falling so fast that my footprints were wiped out in minutes. On the way back down the trail I took a wrong turn and froze for a minute, wondering. Below me the river flowed on. It's that feeling you get on the edge of being lost: This doesn't look familiar. Quick inventory: no matches, no phone, no plan left with friends. Then the scenario: Runner vanishes in snowstorm.

It wasn't long before I remembered that this was the side trail that I had noticed on the way up. But winter gives the mountains an edge that is easy to forget in summer. Living here, far from the ocean I had left, I had let my guard down a little. These mountains seemed tamer, gentler somehow. Here the bears stayed complacently in the woods. There were trails, many of them, all nicely cleared. There were other people, toting backpacks. It seemed like a watered down wilderness, a wilderness without fire.

But that isn't really true. There are just as many ways to get in trouble here, though perhaps not as spectacularly. Recently Search and Rescue carted a woman off Ruby Peak; she had gone up in shorts and became hypothermic. Another woman whined that she could not make it back from Ice Lake. People swan dive off their horses on a regular basis.

We're under a winter storm warning. I hope all the people in tents up there are prepared. Just last week it was in the seventies. I'm glad I'm in my house, watching the snow, but a part of me wishes I were up at some high lake, watching the world change.

Monday, September 28, 2009

the little fire that fooled everyone

Today our calm WFU (wildland fire use fire) blew up. It had been happily puttering around in the wilderness for thirty days, creating a nice healthy mosaic. When I flew it last week it was very ho-hum, a few lazy wisps of smoke spiraling up from the pines. Everyone thought it would just poke around for a few more weeks and go out.

The wind, temperature and humidity aligned today and it roared out of the wilderness with a full head of steam. The column towered over the mountains, creating its own weather. Even 17 miles away we could see flames in the smoke. It was the kind of thing that reminds you why you like fire, even after twenty years of choking smoke, busting up your knees, and missing out on things like vacations and friends' weddings.

Everyone panicked. Orders flew fast and furious--an overhead team! Hotshots! Fire camp! Air tankers! Lead planes! An undercurrent of excitement ran through the building as people rushed back and forth. Rumors of lost 90 year olds at the trailhead (they turned out to be 86, and were found and escorted out). Road closures. Worry over public outrage over us not putting it out a month ago.

It's all very entertaining watching the whole gear-up for battle thing. It never really changes from place to place. Or over decades in fact. We think we have gotten really good at corralling fire into its place, that we can predict where it goes and what it will do. I like that our little fire proved us wrong this time.

Friday, September 25, 2009

being the canyon

It's 96 degrees as John and I toil up the eroded slope, pebbles rolling under our boots. John pushes a wheel and I carry a clipboard. We stop to record this trail's story: waterbars, climbing turns, weatherbeaten wood signs, the writing faded.

We don't record its secrets. There is the blackberry patch, hanging low under the weight of sweet ripe berries. The apple tree, perhaps planted by some long-ago settler. A rusting iron bedstead, slumbering in the tall grass. A seep where we rushed to fill our empty water containers. These things won't go into the official government paperwork, only in our thoughts.

The heat presses down like a hand. Far below, hidden in the brown wrinkles and folds of the canyon, the Snake River winds itself downstream. This is such a starkly beautiful landscape, so tough and battle-scarred. Fires push through, killing the trees that eke out a living in the cooler draws. The sun bleaches everything--the grass, the bones.

We have nine miles in all, climbing up to a bench, down through some dry creeks, up and over a saddle, then down to the river. John says he has been here when it has been too hot to breathe. The air now is completely still. The canyon waits out the sun.

Halfway through we run into a hunter's spike camp, three tents but no occupants in sight. Nearby Trees of Heaven lift their fronds to the sky. They are beautiful but they don't belong here. Probably a rancher planted them for shade, but they look like they belong in a jungle, not in this parched country.

With two miles to go we get back into the poison ivy. Roy the boat driver advised wearing rain pants, but I plow through, hoping for the best. Here a creek trickles and we filter water for the second time today. We've already been through nearly six liters.

When the river appears it is like magic. We have been traveling through a dusty brown landscape for hours, and it is easy to forget that water exists, has ever existed anywhere. Now we are rich in water. I jump in and float, face turned up to the sun.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

what bears have taught me

1. Defend your own berry patch. The berries there might be full of worms or not quite ripe, but darn it, it's yours.

2. The grass is only green for a short time. Live life to its fullest! Munch away while you can!

3. Day beds are important. Even tough guys need naps. Your resting place should have a view, a good food source, and solitude when you need it.

4. Be kind to your neighbors. You might end up sharing a fish stream with them.

5. Know when to cut and run. This might not be the hill you want to die on. Pick your battles wisely.

6. Take a chance on new territory. Home range is nice, but if it gets intolerable, have the guts to move on.

7. Play. Slide down a few snow slopes. Chase your buddy around in the tall grass. Don't worry about what you look like doing it.

8. People are more scared of you than you are of them. Use this to your advantage. Be strong, be decisive, act quickly. Stay away from fools with guns.

9. Take a long winter break. You don't need to work so hard all the time. Slow down, enjoy life.

10. There's always next year. No mate this season? Fishing poor? Don't let the small stuff get you down. It'll turn around!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Kayak Ranger Diaries

As soon as we paddle out from the shelter of Klag Bay, deep in the isolated heart of the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness, I know my Forest Service field partner and I have made a possibly dangerous mistake. Despite the relatively benign weather forecast, suddenly we are fighting a confused sea. Twelve-foot waves, steel gray, are rolling in from the open ocean, unimpeded in their journey from Japan. Towering over our heads, they toss our kayaks like driftwood as we plow forward toward the sanctuary of the Baird Islands, hulking shadows three miles to the south. The steady rain needles its way through my jacket. A soft bed and hot shower, five days away, seem impossibly distant.

Paddling next to me, Natalie vanishes in the wide-bottomed troughs and re-appears high above on the crests of the waves. A pair of sea lions chase after her, fascinated by her yellow boat. We glance over at a possible takeout, a small indentation in Slocum Arm, but going in is impossible: huge rollers pound the cliffs. Turning around, returning to Klag, could flip the boats. I wave my hand toward the Bairds and she nods in agreement, studying her chart. There is no other choice but to continue on.

A fifty-foot yacht steams by on our starboard, pale faces pressed against the foggy windows. Camera flashes illuminate the ship’s cabin. I can’t make out their expressions, but I can imagine what they are thinking. I have seen it before when we have approached out of the mist to make our visitor contacts. Fifty miles from Sitka, we are two women in kayaks. Where did we come from, and where are we going?

I became a kayak ranger at forty. I moved to Alaska on a whim, taking a big cut in pay and responsibility because I thought my life lacked adventure. My desk-bound co-workers shook their heads as I packed up my belongings. "Career suicide," they whispered.Maybe they were right. But the first time I slipped inside a kayak I felt my senses come alive. Here, floating on the ocean's back, I was in charge of my life in a way I had never been. All the things that made me afraid--bears, capsizing, rip tides--also made my skin tingle and my heart beat faster. My hair frizzed and my hands grew calloused. I remembered this feeling from the distant past of my twenties as a wilderness ranger in the Idaho mountains. There has been a lot of water under the bridge since then: a marriage, a divorce, seasons come and gone in different towns. Before becoming a kayak ranger, I felt myself becoming old too soon, resigned to a slow slide towards retirement at a computer desk.

The water calms to a ripple inside the protection of the Baird Islands. Despite the rain, we pause for a moment to take in our surroundings. Moon jellies, transparent and ethereal, undulate under our boats. Fat purple sea stars waddle slowly with the tide. We inhale an intoxicating mix of salt water, fish and kelp. Surf worries the other side of the island in a timeless push and pull of water on rock.As night falls, Natalie and I sit under our tarp. Under the big trees it hardly rains. We have two more days out here before our pickup. I wish we could stay out here forever.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Why shopping for a couch is like dating

I had the perfect couch in mind--the couch of my dreams. I would sink into it like arms were closing around me. It would be a couch for napping, for dreaming. It would be something tasteful, like a light blue stripe, and it would have pillows. I could see it clearly. Now why couldn't I find it?

I haunted the garage sales. There was the moment of hushed anticipation as I saw a line of parked cars and old ladies sitting under sun shades. The long tables, the cluster of items..but my heart sank every time. No couches! Was everyone hanging on to their old furniture, thinking that a known quantity was better than going out into the wild unknown? Did everyone have a couch but me?

I asked around at work. Someone knew of someone else who might have a couch in storage. That did not pan out. Someone else had heard a radio ad, but the couch was gone, snatched away immediately. An army of people fanned out around the town, scouting, but came up empty. Maybe, I pondered, this town was just too small for quality couches.

I went to the lone furniture store. The salesman extolled the virtue of a hard, mean-looking couch. It was narrow and unfriendly, besides being eight hundred dollars. Eight hundred dollars! I couldn't fathom owning a high dollar couch. With my dusty hiking clothes and lack of pretensions, we would be seriously incompatible.

Next I gave in and tried online couch hunting. Ebay, craigslist, even IKEA and Sears. Nothing seemed quite right. A lot of places wouldn't deliver to my area, and the idea of a long-distance couch frightened me. Without trying it out, how would I know if the couch and I could co-exist peacefully? What if some strange couch showed up and stayed and I couldn't get rid of it?

Maybe, I thought, I didn't really need a couch. Maybe I was buying into the dream that everyone should own a couch. After all, does it ever really work out? Eventually all couches end up at the dump. Or perhaps I was being too picky. The sweet green loveseat I had left behind had been all right, although its length and general uncomfortableness never inspired passion. Was I comparing all these prospective couches to the couch of my childhood, a magnificent orange squishy one that resided proudly in the basement?

Then I approached a yard sale. Finally, a couch. It was white and long, with pillows. It bore a few stains and smelled weird. I lay on it awhile. The price was right, but something just felt off. It seemed like this couch bore too much baggage from the past. I got up and walked away. Maybe I had blown my last chance for a couch, but I was willing to live with that.

On my way home I saw a sign for one more sale. I had no interest or hope in finding a couch, but perhaps I might find a computer desk, another item I lacked. I drove up and poked around in the open storage units.

In the murky depths hid a couch. It was totally wrong, of course. First of all, the color! It was red, not a burnished, mellow red, but an unashamed brothel red. Also, it was too short, and I had always preferred taller couches. Its fabric was a crushed velvet. I started to leave, but something called me back. There was something about this couch.

The seller seemed anxious to be rid of it. He dropped his price to $50 and threw in an armchair. "I just want it gone," he said. It seemed cavalier, this discarding. Maybe he had upgraded, found a new, younger model, a trophy couch.

The couch now sits in my living room. It is too soon to tell if it will stay. Who knows, really, how things will work out? We are trying each other out, the couch and me. I like how unashamed it is, how its take-it-or-leave-it color shows it doesn't care about conventional colors. It makes me smile when I look at it in the way other couches never has. It is funny and irreverent. It is a bright spot in my day.

To all other couch searchers out there, don't give up! A couch is out there, looking for you. It may take years and years and lots of ugly couches, but you will find it. Don't let the lumpy futons and rock-hard "sofa sleepers" get you down.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Losing Roger

It's been fifteen years.

A lot can happen in fifteen years. In fifteen years, I've married and divorced. I've moved, three times. Babies I knew then have grown into long-haired women. I've grown too, moving incomprehensibly from young to not-so, knees turning cranky, wrinkles fanning out from my eyes. Fifteen years seems like a long time.

There have been other wildfires in the mountains. In the place we used to walk, the water flows in an endless sheet to the Gulf of Mexico. Cabbage palm crowds the sky. The panthers slip in and out of the blanket of night. None of this has changed. To most of the world, fifteen years is nothing, a blink.

There is so much they wanted us to learn from the fire that killed you. We still hear about it, lessons learned, things not to do. We clap on our hard hats, climb the same hills, fight what feels like the same fire over and over. Don't do what they did. As if we are any better. If you couldn't win the race against fire, who could?

Still, I carry your last fire with me, along with the dusty ball cap you used to wear. It was a sleeper, no big deal at first. I think that you could have seen the highway from where you worked or maybe the river. Surely you weren't thinking about dying then. You had just fallen from the sky on the strings of a parachute. Because I was on another fire, a few miles away I know that the sky was cloudless. Probably you moved through the day in a sort of dream like I did, nights without sleep fuzzing the edges. When the wind came, it was a surprise.

I don't remember how many fires I've seen in the last fifteen years. After a while they all blend together, a smooth cocktail of smoke and sleeplessness. Others have died, losing the race with fire. Each time it seems like losing you all over again. Obviously we have learned nothing. Each news report brings the same feeling as the day I heard about you and the other thirteen, dying on a mountain called Storm King.

It's been fifteen years. Each year adds up, another pebble slowly turning to sand. I've heard it can take a thousand years to build one inch of soil. How long will it take the world to forget you? But I don't want to forget, so I talk to the rookies about safety zones and escape routes. They half-listen, because it won't happen to them. They play hacky-sack and chew Red Man, rolling their eyes at the fire grandma. They were in diapers fifteen years ago.

The mountain you died on has burned once since. It will burn again. I can't stop the Gambel oaks from growing, the lightning from coming, the years from passing. But I probably won't go back to the fireline. Fifteen years extra is enough. It takes a younger woman with an unblemished heart, one that does not carry extra weight.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Musings from the Box

I sit in the Box, watching helicopters fly. On my right a VHF radio spits static as Air Attack and the tanker pilots debate strategy. In front of me is the air to ground radio, and to my left the Command frequency and the radio with the Deck channel. The Air Guard radio, for emergencies, is tucked up on a shelf.

In the Box it is easy to daydream, to find thoughts filling your head. Thoughts like, what am I really doing with my life? Can I afford to take a year off from work and write? What happened to Sue, who borrowed my zip-leg skinny jeans with the stripes back in the 1980s and tore them climbing over the Grand Hotel golf course fence? What if I had married someone different? How come my co-worker is asleep and should I wake him up? Will there be salad for dinner?

Thump thump thump, the K-Max is coming in to land. K-Maxes look like a praying mantis gone wrong. With no tail rotor and counter-rotating main rotors, it is an exotic creature among the more mundane helicopters on our base. "2 Kilo Alpha," I say over air-to-ground. "No reported traffic, winds west at five to ten, land at your discretion."

The pilot responds with an affirmative, leading me to wonder, not for the first time, why all helicopter pilots sound alike. I break into the VHF chatter and ask Air Attack if he wants the K-Max to load and return. He does, so I call on the Deck frequency to let the manager know. He forgets, again, to give me the Hobbs reading, so I know how many hours to record for this last cycle.

This Box is like many I have sat in. A long rectangle, it faces the bleak field that this fire team has rented for a temporary helibase. Before Boxes, we sat under a flapping yellow tarp, our papers held down with rocks, straining to hear the radios that we placed in cut-out cardboard stands. Miss a call, and you could change the course of someone's life. It could be a pilot reporting an emergency landing, some division supervisor pleading for air support, or just two helicopters trying to land at the same time. Boxes started appearing a few years ago, making this job high-tech.

Most people don't like being recruited for the Box. A last resort for helitack crew members without any work to do, it is viewed as a punishment and a boring sentence. I don't mind the Box much, though. Crewmembers pass in and out, seeking air-conditioning, and bring games to play, like the one where you try to attach a string of plastic monkeys using one hand only. Being in the Box feels like I'm doing something worthwhile, unlike the line of helitack I see now who are napping in the shade. In the Box, I can pick up information on what the fire is doing. I hear the air tankers being ordered, which means things are going to hell. I eavesdrop on the pilots, chatting about how the west line looks or if it is safe to land at a helispot. I know what the crew bosses are ordering: if it's hose and a blivet, that means we won't be here much longer because we are in the mop-up phase. If it's more MREs, shuttling crew gear to a distant point, or requests for more bucket drops, I might as well settle in for the long haul.

Two impossibly clean guys drop in, looking for flight helmets. They're overhead, wanting a recon. They pull out maps and show me that the fire has crossed over the river and is making a run into the wilderness. As soon as they leave, the helibase manager comes in and says that we are getting two more helicopters, a Blackhawk and a light. Helitack rouse themselves and scurry across the field, pounding in more pad markers. This will bring us up to 12.

Some kids show up, wanting to see the K-Max, but they will have to come back later. They stand outside the Box, their eyes full of awe as they watch it lift lightly off its pad. A horse trots onto the field, and I laugh as I watch two helitack try to catch it.

Cool evening air pours in the screen door. Soon all the helicopters will finish their fuel cycles and come in like roosting birds. This is so familiar that sometimes I forget which fire I'm on, which state. Our tents line the field, a colorful parade of different types and styles. This could be Montana or California or a dozen other places in between.

I think about all the other people in the other Boxes across the West, thinking their own deep thoughts. Maybe they are wondering how to break up with someone who loves them. Possibly they are contemplating doing something radical--quitting their job, striking out into the big unknown. They could even be pondering how, even when you've been told different, how it really must be magic that keeps helicopters in the air.

My co-worker wakes as his chair tips over. "Only five o'clock," he groans. "When will this hell be over?" He pounds on the window. "Hey! Go see what's for dinner!" His buddy drops his newspaper and hotfoots it toward fire camp.

On the other hand, maybe the Box doesn't inspire deep thoughts. Maybe it's just an oversize singlewide, tricked out to look fancy. Maybe we're just passing time in here like all the others. Maybe it really is all about what's for dinner.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Nights on the Dim Shift

Fairbanks, Alaska, 2004. The Boundary fire was threatening town. People were evacuated. A big fire camp went up at a NOAA site. When my crew arrived, we were assigned to night shift--only, there is no night in the summer. Instead, there is a murky twighlight for about an hour or so. The sun shines brightly at midnight. Thus we became the "dim shift." Here is a typical day:

7 am. Stumble blearily back into camp. The day shift is in full swing, a loud briefing going on near the mess tent. Force down some cereal. Head back to tent and hope for the best.

7:30. NOAA crew decides to wash its satellite dishes with a power washer. Sounds like a weedwhacker on steroids. Curse, stuff in earplugs, put bandanna around face since it is so bright out.

9 am. Tent way too hot to sleep. Crew boss refuses to let us put our tents in the trees where it might be cooler. Stumble out of tent, locate empty school bus. Too hot in here too. Locate deserted army tent. Hot. Well-rested camp slugs watch in amusement.

10 am. Defy crew boss and put tent in trees. Momentary relief. Soon, too hot. Pressure washing continues.

12 noon. Give up. Eat wonderful bag lunch, avoiding the omnipresent ham sandwiches. This leaves the sugary fabulousness of Skittles and a limp orange. Huddle under yellow tarp, sweating. Crew boss snores away, still in boots and fire clothes. Stench is becoming unbearable, since he refuses to take a shower.

1 pm. Read a book, play Hearts, lie in a pile of sweat under tarp. Head to showers. They are in a trailer. While a bit grimy, it's nice to have them, since we often don't. Put on dirty fire clothes. Crew boss makes fun for taking a shower. Do pushups for something to do.

5 pm. Force down a salad, since dinner is a mass of scary something. Tool up. Get in school bus. Drive. Bus driver gets lost. Drive some more. Arrive at drop point, a mine site near the Chena River. Told to start a wet line. Pull out hose packs and hardwear and start plumbing. Show the people who don't know what a gated wye is. Mosquitoes thick.

7 pm. Told that the plan has changed. Abandon plumbed line. Now told to cut saw line to Chena River. Note that there is a lot of tall grass in the middle of the trail. Wonder about the line holding. Am told that the fire absolutely cannot cross the Chena or it will take off into the black spruce and head into town.

9 pm. Still sawing away. Some guys wear head nets when they stop for a break. Have no idea where the main fire is, but it's not near here. See no other crews.

12 pm. Tied in to the Chena. Crew boss asks for another assignment. Told to grid the green. Seems crazy because the fire hasn't come through here, but we do it anyway. Find moose antlers. Stupid boys on crew decide to chop down live aspen. Ineffectual squad boss tells them to stop. They don't. Sit and sharpen tools.

2 am. Giving up all pretense of work. Sit on the gravel. Dan annoys everyone with his made-up stories. Night drags by. Radio is silent. We got to see the fire a few days ago, when we burnt out a line, but haven't seen it since.

3 am. Told that we have to go dig line around a cabin. Yeah! Something to do. Wake up bus driver. He is surly. Go over to new area. Attempt to have others do a grid search for cabin. Others reluctant. They tear down the hill even though there is fire below us. Think that they would be dead if it blew up. Find it hard to care.

3:30. Find "cabin". It is a pile of logs. Dig line around it anyway. Finally can hear and see the fire. It's crackling along happily. Feel better that we can at least smell smoke.

5 am. Told we "get" to rest on the bus until it's time to go in. Bus is smelly. Crew boss snores. Instead, poke around in mine tailings, hoping for a fortune. One crew member disappears. Search party is rousted, finds him. He is surly.

6 am. Roll into camp. Look around. Wonder what this is all about. Crew boss grumbles about tents in trees. Refuse to move them. Crawl in tent. Put in ear plugs and bandanna. Hope for a good assignment next time.

7 am. Pressure washing begins.

A few days later it poured, so much that all the crews were sent home. Two weeks later, the fire crossed the Chena River.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

inside the mountain's skin

Like any other name, there's a story behind this one. For a long time, I wanted to be someone else: someone strong and fearless, someone who didn't wake at night in the tent, heart pounding. Someone who could climb up talus slopes the consistency of Grape Nuts, someone who didn't need a map.

I thought that if I could crawl inside the mountain's skin that I could shed the soft layers like an onion, remake myself into something hard and polished as stone. I wouldn't mourn over the men who left me; I wouldn't obsess over a missed chance or something I should have said differently. Like the mountain, I would be indifferent to what others thought. No longer would I remember sixth grade, when I felt like an outcast in a strange world of mean girls. The voice inside that berated me for not being fast enough, tough enough, would fade into the silence forever.

Of course it didn't work that way. "People come here to get away but whatever it was they left behind follows them," someone told me deep in a starry night. It was true: all the parts of me I wanted to abandon never went away. As fast as I ran, I couldn't move fast enough. All the sketchy trailless peaks I climbed never made any difference. I grew my hair long, braided it in a thick rope down my back. I carried seventy pounds in a backpack and chopped trees out of the trails with a pulaski. I slept at lakes far from any road and traversed slopes where a misstep meant a plunge into oblivion.

I finally learned that you can't crawl inside the mountain's skin. I am made of water, not stone. "You are getting more beautiful every year," my friend David told me as we sat on a fence facing a line of mountains. He didn't see the wrinkles, souvenirs of years above treeline. He didn't reconsider when I got my saw in a bind cutting up firewood. I wanted to see myself the way he did, a woman worn down like a mountain but beautiful in her own way, rough around the edges but polished in the places that mattered. Every year I get a little closer; the woman who looks back at me in the mirror is a little less of a stranger.

It's good to be a little afraid, get a little lost, fail once in a while. You can love the mountains, but they don't love you back. A granite shoulder is a nice place to be, but sooner or later you have to come down. It's good to have someone waiting for you when you leave the trail; someone whose eyes will light up because they see it is you, complicated, flawed, beautiful you. It's good to let someone else inside your skin.

Friday, August 21, 2009

what I think about when I think about fire

I had to run from my first fire.

It was twenty-one years ago, deep in the brush-choked Blue Mountains, a blip on the radar screen in a year when huge fires burned in southern Oregon and northern California. I had a boyfriend I wanted to impress, a motorcycling black-eyed boy named Jim. I thought he would love me better if I were a firefighter, a brave,tough woman so far from the way I saw myself. I thought I would love myself better by turning myself into stone, fearless and strong.

We were a motley crew, the picked-over dregs, the more experienced having already been sent out weeks ago. We eyed each other nervously in the parking lot, ill-fitting boots on our feet, the unfamiliar caress of our leather gloves covering our soft hands. Our crew boss just sighed. He was saddled with a green crew.

We marched six miles, sidehilling across slopes and climbing over deadfall higher than the tallest guy on the crew. The crew boss set a wicked pace, showing no quarter. Smoke filtered through the trees, turning the forest into a shadowy place. We got lost and had to backtrack, but finally arrived along a ridgeline. The fire was below us, down in the valley. We could hear it sighing deep in the trees, a low moan that should have scared us if we had known better.

The big secret about fighting fire is that it is the same thing, over and over. It is not glamorous. It is instead black snot running from your nose, the swing of a pulaski meeting hard ground. It is sixteen hours or more of shuffle-step, moving logs and brush and pine cones and dirt to make a clean line that fire won't cross. At night, the muffled roar of the generators and the overhead lights of fire camp keep you up, and if you can sleep through those, the hacking coughs of your crew might. It is night shift, struggling to stay awake in a field of glowing embers in the bottom of the darkest sky. It can also be fear, a lightning bolt through the heart as you run down a dry slope, pursued.

So why do I dream about fire? Why does the sight of a column of smoke make my heart pound, when I know what it is all about? Why do I find it so hard to wean myself from fire season, to turn my back?

Maybe it is because it is a tribe of people who speak my language. We hunker on our heels, talking about sling loads and anchor points and the big one back in 2004. We are a loose family, a knot of kinship that never really comes untied. We come together for a brief moment for a cause. When we look at each other, there is recognition. There is trust. There is love.

Or maybe it is because fire is so elemental, so raw. It is something that regardless of how hard we try, we can't tame. It does what it wants, jumping from tree to tree, skipping over one patch of ground but covering another with its tongue. We watch, enchanted. We lean on our shovels. We want to possess something of its power, its indifference. We watch it gobble up the forest. Secretly, we cheer.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

More to come..

I've been busy with the move, but have not forgotten the blog! I am tumbling over some posts in my mind and will be back up next week!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Leaving Alaska

Captain Davey thinks I'm crazy. He picks me up after my last kayak patrol and we churn our way past Piehle's Passage, Klokachef Island, the Potato Patch. I sit in the bow wondering if this is the last time I will see Chichagof Island, its peaks now colored brilliant green, the ever-changing ocean restless along the gravel beaches.

"This is my homeland," he says. His expansive gesture takes in the gray whales feeding along the rocks, the eagles watching fish swim below the sea. How I want to feel connected to a place like he does. He turns the boat towards town, a smile on his face. What would it be like to know that you have fifty years left in a place?

I've always had a wandering bone. In my twenties I crisscrossed the country in a rattly yellow Chevette packed to bursting, moving with the seasons. In the summer I planted trees in the Sierras or cleared trails in Idaho; in winter I fought fires in the heart of the swampy Everglades. I loved being on the road to a new place. There was so much to stumble upon, so much air to breathe.

I've left three places I loved more than any man. The breakups were more painful than divorce. They are all far-flung and very different: one, a small island in the Great Lakes; another a wide sagebrush valley surrounded by jagged mountains. The third, this rainforest coast of Alaska.

Blame it on something, anything, but I don't want to stay put. I fear the acquisition of a lawnmower or, god forbid, a ladder. Owning a house again strikes terror into my soul. Prior to this move, I gave away most of what I owned. I feel light and nimble, ready to jump.

But Alaska is hard to leave. Curse the rain, the long featureless stretches of darkness, the seemingly deliberate stubbornness of the absent sun, but there is something that sinks into your soul and hangs on. Maybe it's the indifference of the mountains and sea; they go about their business without any help from us. We are the ones who must adapt to them. There is a fascination in a waterfall that will flow in lace-like pattern down a cliff face whether you are there or not. There is mystery in flying over the island in a small plane and thinking that nobody has ever set a foot on some of this territory.

This is a place where people disappear. We've never found the Beaver with its crew of five, vanished somewhere between Deadmans Reach and Baranof Warm Springs. People drown, people go missing, bears roam the trails a stone's throw from town. A wildness beats in this place like a drum.

I'm leaving though and can't really say why. Why wasn't this the place where I could put down roots, start a garden, say I would stay forever? Part of it is that I believe there is so little time. I want to see it all, cram in all the mountains and rivers and trails that I can. I don't want to stare out of the windows of my cubicle and wonder what might have been.

There are those who frown at this approach. What about the American Dream? Own a house, owe thousands! But what a write-off on your taxes! How will you establish credit otherwise? What about saving for your retirement? And if you don't have kids, who will take care of you when you are old?

I sit in another empty house. The movers have taken what little I have away, and I am left with what matters: hiking boots, fire clothes, camping gear. Some of my friends have stayed away: not fond of goodbyes, they have made themselves scarce. Others act resentful, as though I am deserting the town. My favorites exclaim how great this adventure will be, and that this place will still be here when or if I return. I like these people the best.

Of course I'll return. I always have, turning up in the places I've broken up with. Come to find out it has only been a separation and I fall in love again every time, remembering what I missed. Just because you don't live in a place anymore doesn't mean you can't love it. I can be a sailor with a home in every port, gone off to exotic locales but always coming home again.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A day in the life of a kayak ranger

0300. Wake up, briefly wonder where I am and who the heck is sleeping next to me. Oh right, I'm on a kayak patrol and that's my volunteer work partner. Realize nature is calling. Wonder if she will wake up if I open the tent zipper. It's kind of light out already, love the long daylight hours here in Southeast Alaska. Stumble out of tent, falling over all the stuff in the vestibule (because it's raining). Fall into the tarp line (because it's raining). Wonder if bears have swum out to the island in the middle of the night. Wonder where the rifle is. Beat feet back to tent.

0700. Granola, powdered soymilk and filtered water, maybe some salmonberries if we can find some. Yum! Take down tent in rain, stuff things in dry bags, carry kayaks the half mile to the ocean. Naturally it is low tide and there are rocks. Load boats, bemoaning the fact that things won't fit. They always do. However the rifle ends up in the cockpit. Love that. Check map and wind. Looks OK, low clouds and drizzle, a southwest swell. Nothing like the 12 footers we encountered on another trip.

Paddle through a magical world of islands, appearing out of the fog. It is an enchanted place of dripping hemlock trees, small pocket beaches with driftwood piled up from winter storms, the liquid sound of our paddles as we move through the kelp. Otters poke up their heads to watch us pass. We can hear the sea lions howling from the White Sisters, a rookery and haul-out to our east. Sometimes whales blow so close we can hear them breathe.

Stop to check formerly trashed campsite. Oh good, it's back. This time they have built a truly lovely visqueen palace. They've even put up a swing. How do they get those lines so high? Volunteer work partner shimmies up tree to remove one. Consider the fact that we are blatantly not wearing hard hats (no place to carry them in a kayak). Think of the ramifications of a fall. Decide not to look.

Gather the discarded beer cans, melted glass, tarps, commercial fishing gear and propane bottles. Lash them to boat. Realize I resemble a trash barge. Attempt to flag down a passing troller to take garbage. No luck.

1200. Stop for lunch (bagels, cheese, red pepper) on a nice sloping gravel beach. Surf is a little tricky; narrowly miss overtopping my boots. Huddle on the beach wondering when it is going to be summer. It's July but doesn't feel like it. Watch eagles flap through the slate-colored sky. Realize how lucky I am to be out here.
Paddle on. Inventory some historic sites: fox farm remnants (people had these farms on islands and sold the fur before WW II; the foxes ran wild over the islands); mining adits (lots of gold and silver taken out here). Collect cedar for a genetics project. Risking life for science, hang over a cliff to make sure each sample is 100 feet apart.
See outfitter boat in distance, record what they are doing. Paddle up to say hi. Clients are puzzled but interested. Decline offer of beer. Ask if they know they are in designated wilderness. One client says no. Guide looks uncomfortable. Knows this will go in his evaluation. Offers to take trash, though.
1700. Find a nice island to camp on. Scout the site for bear sign. Looks OK. Drag kayaks on beach and unload. Naturally it is low tide. Carry camping gear up beach. Wish for head nets. Spend an extraordinary amount of time trying to hang food in tree. Sit on beach looking out at the wide ocean. Write notes. Realize how lucky I am. Inhale in the sweet smell of the sea. Forget to call in to Dispatch. Worry about them sending the Coast Guard out again. Worry about seeing it in the Police Blotter. Leave them a message on the satellite phone.
1600. Pasta, pasta, or pasta? Fire up stove. Marvel at the culinary delights we can create. Wash dishes and stroll around the island. Island is a lot bigger than we think. Walk out on high headland covered in heather. Watch waves kiss the cliffs. Get back late. Check tide book. Move boats higher. Realize we will regret this later.
Place pepper spray strategically. Wash face. Realize have forgotten hairbrush again. Use a fork instead. It's stopped raining. Listen to VHF. Sounds good for tomorrow. Make a plan. Brush teeth. Read book about surviving ocean storm by headlamp. Realize this might not be the best reading material. Turn off headlamp. Realize how lucky I am.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

We Support Outlaw Cabins

Here in the Alaska wilderness, a small and scruffy band of individuals drive around with bumperstickers on their pickups proclaiming their support for outlaw cabins "because they could save your life."

Here's my question: if they could save your life, why do the builders put camo netting over them and hide them in out of the way bights where the average Joe won't ever find them? And why do they have to be so ugly? I've hauled enough visqueen out of the woods to wrap the town of Sitka. And who says that the wilderness should be safe anyway? If you are willing to proclaim how rugged and subsistence-oriented you are, shouldn't you be able to survive in a tent?

I've found many of these over the years and they all follow the same pattern. We glide into a likely looking hidden cove via kayak, get out and peer into the woods. Our hearts sink. A white visqueen tarp glints evilly from the darkness. Gingerly we avoid the detritus from beer cans, broken bottles and tarps, navigate through hacked forest and hanging strings. The cabins range from elaborate rough-cut structures with reading lamps over the beds to the simpler weather-ravaged tarp palaces. What they all have in common is a clear-cut forest, heaped-up trashy fire pit, and gnawed corn cobs.

We demolish these structures, spending days wielding hammers and burning big piles of plywood. It becomes a cat and mouse game, with the builders moving on to another site, or returning to rebuild, just like after a hurricane.

I actually like finding them, it's quite therapeutic to destroy things that don't belong. We have a tool called a FUBAR which is awesome for destruction. It's fun to burn on the beach, sending high columns of black smoke into the air. I like looking at a restored area afterwards, the way it is supposed to be.

My take is this: If you need a cabin to survive, move south. Everyone I know that goes out on the water or in the woods carries survival gear, or should. If you are unlucky enough to lose it, you should have an EPIRB. You can't expect Alaska to be safe. If it was, it would be like any other place.