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.