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.