Sunday, January 31, 2010


All day and all night snow, coating the pine trees like frosting. Unlike the typical snowfall here, this is wet and thick and dense, more like the snows of my childhood near Lake Superior.

No fluffy snow, this. It plastered my hair to my head, soaked through my optimistic fleece vest. Skiing was like slogging through concrete, our skis completely vanishing under the snow. Basically, walking on skis. Even the Hill of Death posed no challenge; I barely slid as I descended, a far cry from the day I wimped out and carried my skis to the bottom. It took us two and a half hours to navigate a trail that I can normally fly through in one.

Some days are like this; you never know what you are going to get. There are times when a short drive up Hurricane Creek brings you out of the smothering fog of the valley; times when rain turns to snow turns to sun depending on where you travel. I am not used to this; in the Alexander Archipelago the weather descended upon us all, varying only in inches of rainfall. You could not travel by foot or car to a place less damp, more sunny. Wrapped in our isolation, the world seemed the same forever.

I'll take my chances on the snow, even if it turns out to be a relentless slog like today. In spite of the shuffling pace, it was well worth it, passing through the hushed white world. The snow forced me to slow down, to really see each tree and each indentation in the landscape. It reminded me that there are times to fly and times to ponder, to take things a bit slower.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

"When do you write?"

I cringe when some well-meaning person asks me this question. I am sure they are picturing someone at a desk at 4 am, charts and outlines of her novel neatly displayed, soft music playing, a goal of 500 words to meet.

In contrast, I am often lying on the couch at random times, struggling to type around an insistent calico cat, dropping chocolate cake crumbs and sighing in frustration. For example I have three projects all bubbling merrily away in a messy stew: my firefighting memoir, which I need to condense and shape to a more manageable flow; an erratic collection of wilderness ramblings that I would like to turn into a book of essays; and my poor Alaska novel that limps along for a page or two every five years.

I wish I could be more organized about it, but life just gets in the way. I want, no I need, to get outside after a week of breathing recycled air. During the work week I spend ten hours a day staring at a computer screen. There is yoga, pilates, writers group, the pub..

This is why I used to go to the Oregon coast to write. The trick is to go to a nice place but not so nice that it draws you outside all the time. At the coast, you basically have the beach and the woods, so I would go out to hike or run, then come back in to write, repeat. No distractions.

I'll have to do better. Starting today. After I come back from snowshoeing, hiking in to check out a snowed-in house for sale, ice skating, playing with dogs, making a minestrone soup, and checking my Facebook.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A golden secret

Today I found summer.

Sweyn and I had some remote outhouses to clean, so we decided to join all-out outhouse assault! We gathered up our rolls of TP, paper towels, shovel, cleaning solution and brushes and headed out in a depressing fog.

At Imnaha, a tiny outpost, we took a left and bounced along on the rocky Dug Bar road, which winds its way eventually down to the Snake River. Our goal was before that, though, so we stopped along the Imnaha River where our nemesis, the stinky outhouse, waited.

This is where a trail comes in. You can follow the Imnaha, wide and sparkling, five miles down to the Snake, in the heart of Hells Canyon. Above us brown, dry mountains reached to the hard blue sky. The very top was glazed with a touch of snow. But down here, it was sixty degrees. We sat and ate our lunch by the chuckling river while a couple of steelhead fishermen fruitlessly cast lines.

This is where summer goes. All these weeks trapped in fog and snow four thousand feet higher, and all along there has been this golden spot. It takes some work to get down here, but now I know what the locals do. Get fed up with winter and go lower, to the Imnaha.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Notes to my younger self

I just had a birthday, and floating in a borrowed kayak among the mangroves I thought back to a time when I was much younger, still possessed by a gypsy soul that made me pick up and move every six months, fighting fire in Florida and hiking in the mountains in Idaho. Drifting with the tide I thought of a few things I would like to tell my younger self.

• Don’t carry such a heavy pack. We wilderness rangers were proud of our big loads. We trooped into the barn to weigh them, exulting in the fact that they topped out at over seventy pounds. They just got heavier the longer we were out, and we trudged back to the parking lot festooned with Boy Scout cooking cans, discarded shoes and the ever-present tin foil.

Lighten your load. Years from now, your knees will rebel. You will undergo surgery. You will think twice about leaping off cliffs. You will hate this betrayal.

• Don’t be in such a hurry. Drop your tools, put your feet in a creek. The trees will still be jackstrawed across the trail in a few minutes. Lean your head back, look up at the sky. Breathe in the cleanest air you will ever know.

• Don’t think that this person, or this place, is the only one you will ever love. There are other mountains and other people; it is easy to pass them by if your heart is stuck in the past.

• Wear sunscreen, for the love of Pete. Yes, I know you spent your teenage years slathered with tanning oil on the back porch. Yes, I know all wilderness rangers are tan, to differentiate themselves from the sickly looking office folk. All I can say is, you’ll be sorry.

• Believe. You are more beautiful and strong than you think you are. You will look back at old photos of yourself and marvel at everything you were able to do. You could work a 48 hour shift on the fireline, drag hose up a mountain, set a prairie on fire. Honestly, was there one thing you couldn’t do, if you put your mind to it?

Friday, January 22, 2010

the people who know you

They called us the panther babes. We were three long-haired, beautiful women, firefighters from the wildlife refuge. We were living an extraordinary life, although we did not know it at the time. We drove big-tired swamp buggies, saved house from wildfires, took our chainsaws and sanvics out to cut trees and clear trails. It was just another day of work for us.

In the winters, the dry season, we lived in a rusty old FMA trailer in the swamp. We wore camo fatigues and jungle boots. We fixed brakes and built pole barns. We set prairies on fire.

The girl I used to be smiles out at me in a picture taken fifteen years ago. Her hair snakes down her back in a fat braid. She holds a fire tool and wears an orange smokejumper pack. I remember that day. We had been sent up to Kentucky, to a pointless and wearying fire. The locals set fires below us and on the night shift it was freezing, unseen trees falling around us. We huddled in our space blankets around a warming fire. By all rights, we should have been miserable. Other people my age had houses, families, steady paychecks. But in the picture I am completely and totally happy.

The panther babes scattered to the far sides of the country but we all got together last weekend in the Florida keys. Though it had been years, we slipped into a comfortable place with each other, like it was yesterday when we walked the fire trails together. Which started me thinking about the value of being with people who really know you. These were the friends who taught me how to run a saw, whom I trusted to walk a parallel line through thick brush alongside me as we laid down strips of fire. These are the ones who pushed me to run faster, work harder, talk about my dreams and my problems. These were the ones who held hands at a funeral.

It takes years to really know people, to let them sink into the tough outer skin you present to the world. I don't regret all the traveling I have done, all the wilderness trips I have taken. But I miss them, the people who really know me.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

off to see the world

I'm in a most unwildernessy spot, a Holiday Inn in Lewiston, Idaho, waiting eagerly for them to put out the milk and cookies. I've discovered why I haven't had a TV for two years: I am instantly mesmerized by it. If all goes well, tomorrow night, very late, I will be in Fort Myers Beach. Kind of strange that this morning I was in a room full of fifty prospective bidders for a handful of contracts for trail maintenance. Now I hear a bunch of kids in the pool.

My co-worker has never been on a jet and he is my age. I can see sometimes why people stick close to home. This mountain range, he knows. I am envious of how he can take a line on a map and describe the rocks, the seasons when you can cross the rivers, and what you will find there. Always a toss-up: stay or go?

Time to go get some cookies. I'll be back in a week. It will be time to get back into the woods again for sure.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Go out with someone who..(wilderness version)

In order to counterbalance the previous post, here's a toast to the wonderful wilderness men of my past. Despite other flaws they may have exhibited, in the wilderness they were strong, capable, even strangely more handsome. Have you noticed how the outdoors makes everyone more beautiful? So here's my advice:

Go out with someone who stands at the bottom of a scary hill to catch you when you are afraid of falling on your skis.

Go out with someone who lets you hike in silence sometimes,instead of incessantly buzzing about like a mosquito.

Go out with someone who will start the fire/hang the bear bag/put up the tent, not because you can't, or because they think you can't, but because they want to do it for you.

Go out with someone who knows how to string up a tarp so that rain doesn't blow in or that water doesn't collect on top and suddenly unleash a deluge on everything.

Go out with someone who knows when it is time to turn around and doesn't mind admitting it, even if you don't get to where you want to go.

Go out with someone who is man (or woman, as applicable) enough to ask how to do something if he/she doesn't know, and listens to your answer.

Go out with someone who lets you decide sometimes where to put the tent, what to make for dinner, or how far to go that day, and is okay with actually doing it.

Go out with someone who is happy to show you something: a waterfall, a patch of moonworts, how to rake sand on a sloping pebble beach to make a tent site.

Go out with someone who will play in the wilderness: make a snow angel, start a snowball fight, skinnydip in a lake.

Go out with someone who thinks you look great sweaty, stinky, your hair in dreadlocks, in the same pair of shorts you've worn for five days.

May we all have wonderful wilderness companions!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Key West

In a few days I will be heading to one of the most non-wilderness places in the country, Key West. I know there are other, busier places with more buildings, more people, more traffic. But South Florida always makes me want to laugh or cry. Cry, mostly, because it has been so hacked and drained and filled and built up and sand brought in to make beaches. Occasionally when I lived there I would glimpse the real Florida struggling to get out: deep in the Fakahatchee Strand, water up to our knees, the unbelievable perfume of a ghost orchid filling the air. On the Florida trail, squishing through cool mud and cypress forests. In the hardwood hammocks, cool even in mid-afternoon, colorful snails crawling up the oaks. A Florida panther, padding across the trail.

But it's few and far between. Most of South Florida is full of things I have tried to avoid all my life: malls, men who wouldn't be caught dead in Carharts, high rises and golf courses. It's hard to get away from the hum of a motor. I feel unable to breathe.

It's certainly not my first choice for travel. But you must get out of your comfort zone now and then, and I have good friends whom I haven't seen in far too long. They live on another key, one that is slower-paced and gentle. It won't be wilderness, but sometimes you have to come out of the wilderness, because everyone you love won't always meet you there. You have to make a choice, whether to limit yourself to only those who will backpack with you on a killer hike to an off trail lake, or to expand your horizons. Everyone has some little glow to them, some irresistable story; you just have to find it.

Besides, leaving this extremely slow-paced valley for awhile will be good for me. I've been hunkered down here waiting out some storms, and it's time to go back out into the world. Bring it on, Key West.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Don't go out with someone who..(wilderness version)

Recently my friend Matt sent me a hilarious true list (sample Don't go out with someone whose mom tells you you are under a curse that is not from this planet). This inspired me to make my own,unfortunately true list, just for fun. Enjoy!

Don't go out with someone who only wants to hike for the purpose of killing something.

Don't go out with someone who throws a tantrum when he swamps his kayak in a foot of water.

Don't go out with someone who, when seeing that you are having trouble turning your kayak in a headwind, shouts, "Just paddle harder!"

Don't go out with someone who will leave you struggling up a steep hill on skis, pulling your and his stuff on a sled, to speed away for the cabin.

Don't go out with someone who claims an allergy to sunscreen to explain his slow pace on a hike.

Don't go out with someone who needs to build an enormous fire while camped, complete with dragging big logs in. Ditto for those who can't camp without large amounts of alcohol.

Don't go out with someone who feels the need to explain his bathroom habits in the woods in great depth.

Don't go out with someone who won't ride a bike/hike/etc because "it's raining".

Don't go out with someone who insists on wearing hiking pants and hiking boots everywhere when he refuses to actually hike.

Don't go out with someone who leaves wet hunting gear in the living room "to dry". For a month.

If any single people read this blog, I hope this helps.