Sunday, February 28, 2010

Touristus Backcountrius

Okay, I'm lazy today so I thought I'd just put a list of the things tourists have asked me or said to me in the backcountry. Enjoy.

1. "Oh thank goodness! I didn't know if you were a ranger or an axe murderer!"(I was carrying a pulaski at the time)

2. "Tough job for a woman."

3. "I saw a black panther!" (Um. In Idaho? I don't think so.)

4. "Where are the elk?"

5. "Do you know Jan, I don't remember her last name, but she works for the Forest Service somewhere..?"

6. "You told us it was easy to get to Noisy Lake and it was really really hard!"

7. "Have you seen my husband?"

8. "Where's the escalator?" Ha. Ha. Ha.

9. "So you majored in forestry? No? English? ENGLISH?! BWAHAHAHA! ENGLISH! HEY MARGE! DID YOU HEAR THAT? ENGLISH!"

10. "If we go to Lake X will there be bears there?"

Of course there are backcountry visitors I have loved, who say things like this:

1. "Do you want a cookie?"

2. "We left some beer in the stream back there."

3. "Of course we'll pack out your garbage."

4. "Come warm up by our fire."

5. "This is the most spectacular place ever."

Monday, February 22, 2010

Letting go

Sunday I decided to hike up Chief Joseph Mountain. To get there, you must ford at BC Creek. Sometimes this creek is a harmless murmur, easy to skip across. Other times it roars with snowmelt, raging down the mountain in malevolent white froth. In the winter it is a lumpy blanket of unstable ice with water trickling over the surface. Most of the time it is uncrossable.

I hoped to cross BC Ford because I had been turned back before. I crossed it once in fall, when the aspens glowed a luminescent yellow. I wanted to get higher up the mountain, to see it in winter.

Once I approached the ford, however, I could see that it would be a challenge. A smooth cape of ice covered the stream. Still, I thought I might be able to make it. I ventured out carefully. The other side was so close--if I could just get up my nerve and take those last few steps.

In the end I gave up, scampering to safety. I was alone and the ice was moody, shifting under my feet. It was hard to turn around.

As I hiked down I thought about letting go, both in wilderness and in life. For months I have been swimming for shore after a relationship suddenly capsized. A part of me wanted to stay out there, to keep trying, even after it was obvious that there would be no safe crossing. It's always hard to turn your back on something, whether it is love or a river. You remember the time you could cross, and you want it to be that way again.

But it never can be. Someday I will make it across BC Ford again and hike to the top of the mountain. It won't be the same as it was last time. The sun won't fall in the same way on the trees. The river might be a little higher, the trail harder to follow. It won't be the same. What is important is learning to appreciate the times you can cross, and letting go of the times you can't. It is a lesson I continue to learn.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Take me to the River

It takes so long to get anywhere in this country. I am still used to floatplane travel, climb in beside pilot John, take off from Sitka, minutes later you have gone fifty miles and are on the other side of the island. Here, you drive. And drive. From my house I can see the slim profile of the Seven Devils, the Idaho side of Hells Canyon, but it takes forever to get there, up and down the Rattlesnake Grade from Enterprise, past the place with good cookies, but not stopping because we are on a time crunch. Then jump into another pickup with Mike and drive over past Grangeville and up and over the saddle to Pittsburg landing, where the jet boat sits. Total windshield time: four and a half hours, three states.

We fire up the jet boat and head up river to Temperance Creek Ranch, where we meet with an outfitter to chew over his permit. They have flown in from Lewiston in a small plane, landing on a bumpy dirt and grass airstrip at the ranch. Total travel time for them: half an hour. Done with the schmoozing, we power back upriver to look at some rapids (huge, boat-swallowing holes! Wow!) and to hike up to a mysterious set of rocks where some ancient textiles were found by a hiker. (Note for future adventures: trails go up and down the river, looks like a great backpack trip). Tony and Mike worry the question: were the textiles cached by an individual weaver or were they community property, left for any female weaver to use? It matters in terms of patrimony, a repatriation thing I only partially understand. Personally I think, with no conclusive evidence, that it was one weaver, stopping here on a brilliant, fresh-washed sunny day like this one, who set aside her weaving to admire the spots of green beginning to dot the canyon walls. My weaving, she thinks, can wait for another day.

Time to go, we load up and travel downriver to the Kirkwood Ranch, which has a funky old homestead, a campground, and a log cabin museum crammed with interesting farming implements. The volunteer bounds out to greet us—he has just returned from a downcanyon hike to see some pictographs. Each volunteer stays here a month. This one is sleeping on the screened in sleeping porch of the main house, hearing the river all night long. It is enough to make me reconsider: maybe I should apply for that remote residency on the Rogue River after all.

We don’t want to go, but Mike hustles us back to the boat with his water sample. I smile to see the mailbox—there is a mailboat up and down the river every three days. We hurry downriver to the launch, where we reverse order to return to Enterprise. Total river miles: 25. Hours on the river: 4.

It is nearly eight pm when we return to our sleepy town. Tony and I mumble goodbyes and head to our respective houses. Still the river sings inside me.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Girls Doing Stuff

I'm following two different blogs where two 16 year old girls are trying to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world. Jessica hasn't seen another person for four months. Her boat got knocked down in the Southern Ocean. But she continued on.

I think about when I grew up and how impossible that would have been to imagine, at sixteen years old, sailing alone out of sight of land. I didn't know any girls who did anything brave at all. When I started fighting fire in the '80s, it was common to be the only woman on a twenty person crew. The first recorded woman on any fireline was 1970, after all, and many men tried mightily to keep women out. Sometimes, they still do. When I was a wilderness ranger in the Sawtooths, people reacted with amazement: "You're alone out here? Aren't you scared?" I somehow doubt they asked my fellow rangers, Doug and Jack, the same question.

I almost didn't get hired to work remotely in the desert canyons of Steens Mountain because one of the guys doing the hiring just couldn't believe that a woman could do the job. I hope that I helped open some doors for women who followed me, just as I was grateful to slip through the ones all the women before me left cracked open.

Sail on, Jessica and Abby!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Traveling to winter

Lately in the valley it seems like...spring. The snow lies in unambitious patches, the temperatures reach into the fifties. In my adopted ski crowd, this is unthinkable and wrong. For them, it could easily stay winter all year long.

Today I set out to find winter again. I knew it was up there, could see it lurking high on the peaks. At the trailhead, ice coated the tread, forcing the donning of Katoohlas (Brief aside: the best shoe grippers ever). As I traveled through the switchbacks, mushy snow appeared. Two miles in, it was deeper. If I stepped off the skier trail, I sank deep in unconsolidated snow.

Stubbornly I refused to put on my snowshoes although it became apparent that the going would be easier with them. I trudged on, past the bridge, past the lunch rock, past the small frozen pond, to arrive at Aneroid Lake.

Here it is still winter. The lake sleeps under a blanket of ice. Snow drifts peacefully over the campsites, crowded in summer, resting now. It will be winter here for a long time still.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

House hunting part two

Since I found out that my overpriced rental house was put on the market, for an inflated price, I've been obsessed over finding a new place to live. Just like the potential Mr. Right list I used to keep in my head back in my twenties, I have my house criteria: No carpet (carpets are evil!), a loft bedroom, one thousand square feet or less, no fatal flaws, and located in a place where curtains are not necessary. The search is proving difficult in a place where "man-hos" (manufactured homes) have been slapped up on any nice piece of ground or where uninspired rancher houses in pastel, or looming boxes with few windows, are squeezed together on tiny lots.

Woods, I need woods. I want to come home to the sound of the river, the sigh of the trees. I want to ski out my back door. I want to lose the welfare apartments, the neighbors who run their diesels for twenty minutes at five in the morning. I want to live in the wilderness.

The few places for sale in these locations barely qualify as shacks. For example, what were the people on Liberty Road thinking with their fuzzy carpet, painted plywood and godawful wallpaper? There they are, surrounded by ten acres of beautiful forest, and the house barely has any windows. On the other hand, I looked at a couple of houses in town that made me uncomfortable. I realized this was because they were too nice. I don't want a house that is so perfect that I don't ever want to go outside. I want one that I am okay with leaving. I want one with character, with unique quirks for me to love.

My Mr. Right list has evolved over time. It used to emphatically deny the existence of beards. It definitely excluded hair longer than mine, a tendency to wear dorky clothes, or men who looked like they were stuck in one place forever. Over the years the requirements have changed as I have realized that it is not about the outward appearance.

Perhaps my house list will change as well. Maybe there is no perfect cabin in the woods. But I'm not budging on the carpet.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Running a misery whip with the boys

I got to relive my past wilderness ranger days last week. John and two fire guys were going up the East Fork of the Wallowa to cut down a dead larch that will be a future footbridge on the way to Ice Lake. I invited myself along because I am not one to miss out on a good winter hike, and besides, I'm the boss, so I can.

We hiked at a rapid pace up the trail, burdened with two crosscut saws, loppers, wedges, bow saw and other assorted necessities. The snow underfoot was soft and churned under our feet like deep sand. The river was smothered in ice.

At the junction, there was a big production of predicting the best path for the tree and beginning the face cut. Because this is wilderness, chainsaws aren't allowed. Even though it was a lot more work, there was something supremely satisfying about accomplishing our task with only an axe, wedges and a crosscut saw. As I pulled my end of the misery whip, I thought about all the generations before me who marched into the woods with the same tools. Instead of the growl of a saw, there was only the singing of the crosscut as it bit through the frozen wood.

In my office, people speak reverently of doing fieldwork, but what most of them mean is trudging around with a notebook. This is the true fieldwork: work that gets you sweaty and tired, ending with an accomplishment. For years to come backpackers will cross on our log. It will probably outlast us.

As we hiked out, I remembered days in the Sawtooths, hiking up similar trails with Deb, cutting out trails, clearing waterbars, camping for days at hidden lakes. I now have a steady salary and benefits, but at times like these I wonder why I gave up the seasonal ranger life. I miss it so.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

I know where the real superbowl is!

No offense, but I couldn't sit inside watching overpaid athletes and eating nachos. The real superbowl for me is a steep tree-studded basin at 7,000 feet. When we skied yesterday the snow was sticky, the sun warm, and many applications of "Easy Glide" later we were able to bomb along. So today I am grabbing snowshoes and a friend and it's off to our own Superbowl. Clif Bars might not be as tasty but the scenery will be way better!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

what people leave behind

I've written about the strange and mysterious items that I have found in the backcountry. Of course there are the usual, not-so-interesting suspects: bottles, cans and tin foil, left perhaps in the belief that a Fire Ring Fairy will spirit them away. Here though I want to discuss the things campers leave in the mistaken belief that they are being helpful.

1. Tarps. Hundreds of blue, billowing, unsightly tarps. Perhaps their owners think that the tarps will help shelter someone in need. What really happens is that the tarps get shredded by wind, pounded by rain, chewed on by bears. Pieces of tarp lie scattered along the lakeshores in a bewildering display of plastic. Just say no to leaving tarps!

2. Grills. If you can hike in a grill, why can't you hike one out? Perhaps the owners feel that the next party will show up with hot dogs and no grill. Unfortunately what does happen is that the next party shows up with their own grill and is afflicted with the same inability to bring it out. Soon grills festoon the site with abandon. Pity the wilderness ranger who now must hike these out.

3. "Furniture." Okay so perhaps you have forgotten your crazy creek chair. Sit on the ground? Horrors! Say, let's drag some logs over here to sit on. While we're at it, let's make a table! The really creative make twig chairs or use saws to actually carve chairs. Please, people. If you need chairs and tables, stay home.

4. The biggest fire ring in the universe. Hey, if a few rocks are good, more must be even better! Let's get some linebackers to roll in some really big ones! I have dismantled some rings with 200 rocks. These are unsightly and absolutely unnecessary. Ditto for those people who have a fire ring in their site and decide they can build a new, better one, while leaving the first one there.

5. String in trees. Enough said.

If you are going to leave stuff, please make it good. Expensive sunglasses work. Leathermen are always a plus. Knives of any sort. And beer. If you forget your beer in a stream, wilderness rangers everywhere will salute you.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Weird Stuff I've Found in the Wilderness

I was thinking about how many years I've been a wilderness ranger, and it's been about 16 (I still consider myself one, even though lately I seem to be navigating a wilderness of bureaucracy). That's a long time to be out there. Just for fun, here are the top ten weirdest things I've found:

1. Decapitated Barbies. Rather disturbing. (Alvord Desert, Steens Mountain)

2. A string of dead mice.Possibly understandable, but still disturbing. (White Cloud Mountains, Idaho)

3. A rubber chicken. (Alvord Desert)

4. A volleyball painted just like Wilson in Castaway, found on a small island. We worried and checked the seaworthiness of our kayaks. (Chichagof Island, Alaska)

5. An inexplicable number of hard hats on widely spaced beaches. On the positive side, I didn't have to bring one of my own for the requirement that we wear one in the woods, since I could count on finding one. (Both Baranof and Chichagof Islands, Alaska)

6. A horse. Okay, not strictly wilderness here, but a wildlife refuge. This horse had escaped from somewhere and was living in the wild. (Panther Refuge, Florida) While I'm at it, I should mention the cat someone was carrying to the summit of Mt. Whitney (CA)and sheep that had gone feral (Nevada)

7. Lipstick. Maybe it's perfectly reasonable to pack this in for a camping trip but not in my world. (Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho)

8. A computer monitor. What else can I say? (Chichagof Island)

9. Shoes. How do you forget your shoes? (Sequoia National Park, CA; White Clouds; Baranof Island.

10. And something equally mysterious: The Leatherman Triangle of Wildhorse Canyon. At least three Leathermen are known to have vanished at this one campsite in Oregon. I personally have never found them. What lurks there and why does it want our Leathermen?

Next time: The most common stuff people leave, on purpose, in the wilderness, thinking they are being helpful.