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.