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.