Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Stuff I think about in tents

Sometimes it seems that I've spent half my life in a tent. Lying in a farmer's field on fire assignments, trying to ignore the hacking fire coughs of the sleepless. Listening to the tide come in and whisper something I can't catch on a nameless island in Southeast Alaska. Perched above treeline at a sapphire lake in the Rockies, arms aching from a day of chopping trees out of the trail.

It's hard to lie to yourself in a tent, easy to be afraid. I lie awake and listen to the sounds of the forest. Bears, heading from day beds to salmon streams. The howl of a wolf. Thunder, muttering low. The walls seem flimsy, not much to keep the night out. I wonder about wind, snags, tide, lightning. There are other times when the tent is a perfect nest, all conditions aligning for a deep slumber.

In Alaska it was hard to find a good tent spot. We tried to camp on islands as much as possible, to avoid bears, even though this meant paddling long distances for water. Often the island interiors were hummocky and boggy, unsuitable for camping. Last year Barth showed me a beach leveling trick that worked great. Land on a pebbly beach. Grab a thick piece of driftwood and drag it across the surface until you have created a flat spot. Voila, the ultimate leave no trace spot: the high winter storm tide will erase all signs.

Here camping is a bit more straightforward, but still a challenge. I scan the trees to determine their stability. I want a lake view, with morning sun, but I don't want my fellow campers to be too close. In many of the lakes the Forest Service has imposed a capricious quarter mile setback. The effect is a row of tents perched on a bench above a lake like cougars, the occupants observing you as you saunter down to the lake in the evenings. But I must toe the company line so I choose a dusty spot in the approved location. There must also be good bear hanging trees lest I provide my fellow campers with evening entertainment as I attempt to hoist my bear bag in trees too small or large. I choose my home for the evening carefully.

I have five tents, each with their own purpose. There's the car camping REI dome, not great in a rainstorm. My fire tent, a big Eureka. A little one person, frail in wind but lightweight. A Big Agnes, sort of big enough for two people. And a tent that has been with me since 1990, a TadPole. I love unrolling them, shaking out the bits of sand and dirt from previous trips. I love thinking about where they have been.

So stuff I think about in tents: Bears. How cold it might get. What I'll do tomorrow. What I did today. If I have to get up and go to the bathroom. How lucky I am.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Freezing at Freezeout

On Saturday I climbed up to Freezeout Saddle, which overlooks Hells Canyon. You start at Imnaha River, a name I like saying because I think it's pretty. Imnaha. A good name for a dog. Here is the beginning of the trail.

The trail passes through some beautiful large ponderosas. I love the smell of these forests. It is like being in a jar of vanilla. Everything was all green and springlike. After a bit the trees stop and you ascend the open slopes. Many switchbacks later I slogged to the saddle. There I saw this demoralizing sign:

Two miles? No way! (Later I checked the guidebook. The sneaky Forest Service had redone the trail and it is actually 3.3 miles to the saddle). A chilly wind howled. I posed for a victory shot:

Fueled by the yummiest snack ever, I pushed on to the summit ridge, before snow drove me back. I postholed for a bit, but the wind was biting and the trail obscure. On the way down I encountered three backpackers who were heading, they said, for Hat Point. Good luck, buddy! I thought. Still winter up there.

The trail continues from the saddle all the way to the Snake River. I peered over the edge, wishing as usual I had brought overnight gear. I could see a tantalizing bench in the distance, a wide expanse of green, before the trail dove off into the canyon. No worries, I’ll be back.

Friday, March 26, 2010

My next big adventure!

For the first time in a long time I am not training for anything. I don't have any big trips planned either. I've recently started following blogs of people who are sailing around the world, hiking in amazing places, etc. This is making me a little unsettled. I need a Big Adventure!

A Big Adventure to me doesn't have to involve passports or incredible suffering. I've run enough marathons to prove I can do it. I have huddled under enough wet tarps to say I am tough. A Big Adventure can be in your own backyard. Or it can be in a far-flung locale. It all depends on your perspective.

Anyway, I am soliciting advice for my next Big Adventure. Look below the Pebble Mine logo for a new poll! Don't worry, it is completely anonymous. I won't know if or for what you voted. Play along, if only for interesting new blog posts and pictures! Please?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


..of any kind is hard to handle. Those you love leaving you, friends who move on..but the one I struggle with the most is rejection of my writing. These fragile little things that I send out on the US Mail..

I found out I did not win the book competition I entered. They picked a book of essays about maternity. I have to face the facts: My firefighting memoir is. Not. Good. The agent(hi Janet!) who requested the full manuscript (here I can insert some snobby writer lingo: a "full" means the whole thing; a partial is..okay maybe it is pretty self-explanatory. Forget it) also agreed it was. Not. Good because it was too much like a series of episodes rather than a story that stuck together (kind of like peanut butter). Well, I agree with her, so I am at a point where I have to decide whether to chuck it or ruthlessly cut and paste.

Rejection can make me a better writer, though; a better girlfriend, a better friend. So back I go to the writing, because something in me makes me do it. It's the same thing that made me keep running in two marathons; the same thing that pushes me up the trails or to keep skiing even though I am Not. Good. at that either.

Wilderness and writing are entwined for me. I can't separate the two. Being out there makes me a better writer. Writing helps me understand why I need to be out there.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

skiing and other things

Today I was up at Fergi, watching Jerry ski. Just for fun, here is a video. I love how graceful he is, though of course he said that this wasn't a very good run.

John and Dan, my co-workers, are down in the Imnaha, hunting up old traces of abandoned trails. It's spring break and everyone is out down there, fishing and hiking as spring comes to the canyon. The blackberry bushes are sprouting and the poison ivy is coming along nicely.

Here it is mud season. I've never lived through a mud season before so it is kind of entertaining. I went for a run and my shoes became completely encased in mud, so I was struggling like a huge-footed prehistoric creature down the road. It's a good thing that no ranchers drove by to observe the comical sight.

In Sitka my truck grew moss but here it just gets coated with mud. The dogs get muddy too--they aren't white anymore but a strange shade of brown. The trails are a strange mixture of snow, ice and mud. You can't get very far. You're reduced to a shuffling sort of jog.

It instills patience. And a slower pace.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Breaking up with a place

It's raining outside, a drizzly steady downpour, the kind that is serious, not a flirty little mist. I mention this because this kind of weather is relatively rare in my valley. However, it was very common in Sitka. In fact, the days it didn't rain there were remarkable, days where we felt a little off balance.

I've written a bit about this before, so blame it on the rain, which conjures up all sorts of memories. What I have been thinking about is how leaving a place you loved feels like breaking up. For whatever reason, you know it is time to go, but you are filled with the same regrets and sorrow. You can "stay friends" with a place but it is never really the same. If I ever go back to Sitka, it will be as a visitor.

When I left Sitka, I ended a relationship as well. It dragged on for a few more miserable months, but it only seemed to work in Sitka. Eventually it limped to an painful close.

I've thought about this before. In my twenties I was irresponsibly engaged to a man I'll call Steve. Steve lived in a remote mountain valley. Among the slightly quizzical ranchers, he seemed a fascinating anomaly: a backcountry skier! A firefighter! He carried business cards that claimed he was "addicted to danger." I fell in love with all this as only someone in their twenties can.

Something strange happened, though, when I took Steve out of his environment. Back east, he lost his luster. He fidgeted, made judgmental pronouncements about my friends. He hastily escaped, not before asking a mutual friend to spy on me.

Perhaps I am making too much of this, but sometimes I wonder if I fall for places, not people. Maybe it is the mountains I love and not a specific person who lives in them. Take this one mystifying, blue-eyed man to Kansas, would he be as intriguing as "Joe" was back in the nineties, knee deep in a trout stream, casting flies?

I think, or at least I hope, that every mountain lover has felt this way. If I had to choose, if someone wanted me to choose, between living here or say, Washington DC, which would I pick? I'm probably supposed to insert some language about sacrifice and true love here. But deep down, I know I would pick the mountains.

I've thought a bit too about how people are changed by the place they live. Does the environment around you shape you into a different person than you used to be? Or do you gravitate to places that feel like you? As for me, I once lived in a place where I could not breathe. It was hot, dusty and conservative. I left every weekend to find places where I felt more like me-high, green, alpine-y places. Every weekend, driving back, I was overcome with misery.

I'm lucky because I had the opportunity to leave. Working for the Forest Service, you are almost expected to take off every five years or so. Now I am in a place that feels like home. But almost like a second marriage, I look back at places I have left. They are like old high school boyfriends. Probably not so great or else I would not have left. Easy to blur the lines after a time.

Okay cyber readers, I would love to hear what you have to say.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

R.I.P. Kate

Kate was found last weekend. The speculation was that she fell off an 800 foot cliff, that she was caught by the darkness on a steep trail. Once again, I didn't know Kate, but I know some things. Specifically: the drive to keep going, to the trail's end, to the top of the peak. The destination. The feeling on a good hiking day when everything aligns: the weather, just right. Your legs, springy and fresh. A new trail, beckoning you onward. Surely you can go just a little farther and faster than before. Because that is what makes you feel alive, just being outside, away from the car, and the news, and intolerant people who think a woman should hike with a gun or a man or else stay at home.

I wish she had been found hungry and cold, but all right, with an epic story to tell and many more years of hiking ahead of her. We will never really know what happened to her. There are still questions. The wilderness holds its secrets.

Recently a woman running outside of an Alaskan village was apparently attacked and killed by wolves. The same strident comments were said: where was her gun? Her buddy? Didn't she know better? All these things that people say to make themselves feel better. To make them think that it could never happen to them: the sudden darkness, the long, endless fall in the night.

I would have done the same as Kate and the runner. I have hiked sketchy trails alone. I have run on deserted roads. I accept the risk along with the rewards.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

House Hunting Part Three

I’m buying a log cabin and it makes me feel both excited and afraid. Excited because I have always wanted to own a place like this, a place that makes me want to settle in. Afraid for the same reason.

I’ve always been a traveler. After college I lived in national parks: Olympic, Carlsbad Caverns, Big Cypress and several others. I followed fire seasons. I lived out of storage units and duffels and unkempt bunkhouses. I don’t miss those things. But sometimes I wonder if I can ever really stay in one place. There is always that desire to move on, to hike different trails, to see different views.

I want to stop. I want to have a small garden. I want to have friends who won’t be at the end of a telephone line. I want to love that stays, not one stretched thin by distance and uncertainty.

How to stop moving, when that is what you have always done? I hope it’s possible. I hope these mountains are enough. I hope that what I have found here is permanence, but not the type of permanence that leaves me feeling trapped.

I tried to find this in Alaska, and something wasn’t quite right. I wanted it to be. I wanted to be one of those people unaffected by the rain, not crushed by lack of sun. I wanted to charge up the slimy, brushy mountains with enthusiasm, never missing the kind of warmth that sinks into your bones, the mind-wandering pleasure that a trail affords. I wanted to sleep deeply while bears circled my tent on their way to the salmon streams.

I couldn’t quite pull it off, though. The mountains I dreamed of were made of granite and limestone, the lakes clear and blue and bottomless, lakes you could actually swim in. I wanted snow you didn’t have to hike uphill for hours to get to. Not tough enough? Maybe. But I’m okay with that.

So here I am in this valley, buying a log cabin. I am making this leap of faith, but it’s not packing up the truck and heading south, or north, or anywhere else but here. To anyone else this might not seem like a big deal. But for me, it is. It really, really is.

Friday, March 12, 2010


As I write this, Kate has been missing in the Columbia Gorge for eight days.

I don't know Kate, but I know some things. I know how it feels to hike solo, the sound of my breath, the crunch of my boots on the path, the endless possibility that being on my own allows. I know how cautious friends tell me to stay home instead of going by myself. There are so many dangers--an unexpected fall, the wrong turn, strangers. Still, when the choice is to sit on the couch or go hiking alone, I will always choose to go.

Going alone, I can hike my own pace. I don't have to hang back and wait for slower companions or race up the trail after faster ones. I can turn over ideas in my head, plans for the future, chapters in my novel. If I feel like danging my legs over a rock for an hour, turning my face to the sun, I can. If I want to turn back early or make a run for the pass, I can do that too.

So I hate to read the comments that say she should have taken a buddy. Should have brought her cell phone. Yes, it would have been safer, but being in the wilderness can't be made completely safe, no matter what we do. Better to sit on the couch if you want complete safety.

With every cool, rainy day that passes it's likely that Kate isn't alive. I feel sad for her and her family. I never like it when people say, "at least she was doing what she loved."It makes no difference how you die when you are gone. Surely we would all choose to keep living, to climb more mountains, solo or not.

I'll keep hoping for Kate to be found.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Goodbye, Sitka Ranger

I heard the other day that the Sitka Ranger is being sold. For those who don't know, this is a sixty seven foot (more or less) boat that we used sometimes when we monitored the South Baranof and West Chichagof-Yakobi Wildernesses in Southeast Alaska. (A diesel boat to get to the wilderness..? Well, the ocean is State of Alaska property and not in wilderness..a whole different topic there).

There were good things and bad things about working off the Ranger. First, the good: sitting on the back deck in the glorious and unexpected sun as we motored over the glassy waters of Chatham Strait, dolphins playing in our wake, waterfalls streaming down the cliffs. Rising at three am to help Steve pilot the boat around Cape Ommaney. Warmth and respite from the endless rain.

It wasn't always great: imagine being cooped up for ten days with people you don't necessarily like. Dripping clothes, snoring, mercuric captains. Still, the boat had a history. A fleet of them used to squire rangers around back in the day, a mobile office for when decision makers actually went to the field. Back in the days of the fifty year contracts, timber crews used it exensively.

But costs went up, office duties lured rangers away, timber cutting ground to a standstill. We found it more cost-effective to fly or rent water taxis, and it seemed more in keeping with wilderness to approach campers in kayaks, rather than noisy skiffs. The demand for trips declined. The Forest decided to sell.

Even though there were days when I would have gladly swum back to Sitka to get off the boat, I find myself a little sad. I arrived in Sitka in 2002, with no place to live and in a downpour. I wondered if I had made a huge mistake.

Then I left on a ten day circumnavigation of Baranof Island on the Sitka Ranger. It was sun-drenched, each bay more beautiful than the one before. From the rail I watched fog gradually pull back to reveal walls of stone reaching for the sky, thick green forest and snowy peaks. I knew I had made the right decision.

So motor on, Sitka Ranger. I hope someone buys you who will take you out again to those bays that nobody ever quite forgets.

The Non-Glamorous Side of My Life

Cleaning bathrooms aside, it often comes as a surprise to people that my job doesn't always involve hanging out in beautiful locales, high above treeline. The agency has really shifted since the days of the horseback ranger who fixed fence, fought fires, and everything else in between. There is a whole dark side (at least for me) that involves the paperwork end of things.

Case in point. My day yesterday:

7 am. Plow contract guy calls, says the snow park needs a plow. Make phone call. Authorize plow. Realize that even though there is a foot of new snow, skiing isn't in my future. Envy retired people.

7:30 am. Arrive at office. Five phone messages. None simple, all require staring at maps, doing calculations, reassurance, or imparting bad news. (No, you can't do that, yes, you need a permit, No, we haven't gotten to that yet.) Look at comments to nepa document and try to figure out how to answer them. Unable to do so. Give up for now.

10 am. Finally get to main task of day. Finish it. Receive phone call. Information is missing from spreadsheet. Look it up. Fix it. Figure out how to attach documents to agreements in I-web. Unreasonably excited about this.

12:00. Eat lunch while working on computer. Worry about crumbs on keyboard. Outfitter has sent in annual operating plan but with nothing filled in. Sigh. Look up information and add it. Ponder ambiguous message from regional office. Go into workplan and shuffle dollars around, again.

2 pm. Finally make it to gym. Endure boring elliptical workout.

3 pm. Three more phone messages. Attempt to solve issues raised. Receive signed Decision Memo from Forest Supervisor for lands permit. Unreasonably excited about this.

4 pm. Personality conflicts. Stare out at mountains and wilderness. Sigh.

5 pm. Leave.

Winter is always the hardest in jobs like these. Field season is why we are in this. As winter drags on, people snap. I saw it a lot in Alaska, where lack of light and lots of rain made the most reasonable person a bit unbalanced. (The unreasonable ones, you knew to avoid at all costs). The whole office dynamic is a complicated, shifty thing. All you hear is tapping of keys, as people earnestly work on reports, permits and maps. I'm ready for summer! The mountains are waiting.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

first backpack of the season!

Hells Canyon, Cow Creek to Eureka Bar. Six miles one way. Easy.

The trail follows the Imnaha River to the Snake River and the heart of the canyon. Though beautiful, the canyon is a harsh place. In three months the heat will set in. This trail will bake in the sun. The poison ivy will grow waist-high in places. The blackberries will sweeten to a juicy tang, but their brambles will snarl the trail.

So this is the perfect time. Along the way I passed hordes of fishermen here for the steelhead run. Some backpackers coming out assured me that there were no campers down on the Snake, though, but I did encounter one, a lone man and a curly-haired dog, set up in a magnificent spot overlooking both rivers.

So I hiked on, to Eureka Bar. This was the site of a big mining operation. Stone walls crumble into the earth and there are gaping holes in the cliffs. Are the stone ruins remains of houses? I didn't know. Whatever they were, they occupied a million dollar piece of land.

I dropped down into a little creekbed where water still ran. Probably in mid-summer this creek would be dry. I was grateful for it, since I didn't want to filter water from the Snake (I've been warned against drinking that water. Too much ag run-off. Sad.)

The main trail left the river here and went high, but I decided to round another corner and came to the perfect beach, a small pocket of sand that looked like a perfect campsite. And it was. All night I listened to the river flow by. Once I looked out and the cold sky brimmed with stars.

The light dropped behind the rim of the canyon early, so I followed the sun, hiking up the creek and discovering three bighorn sheep. They appeared over the ridge and came downslope, passing a few hundred yards away.

The descending notes of a canyon wren, the first light on a spire. The peace. I read a whole book. I outlined some scenes for my novel. It was magical.

By the way: The Big Agnes Seedhouse tent rocks! It's billed as a two person. I guess. If both people aren't huge. It's really lightweight and sets up fast. You can even set up the fly only.

Friday, March 5, 2010

why I'm not a girly girl

I have friends who wear makeup. Lots of makeup. They blow dry their hair. They spend money on mysterious things called pedicures. They always look really, really great.

Sometimes I'd like to be less windblown. I'd like to be unwrinkled, dewy complexioned, manicured. But it never quite works out. I always feel like I'm pretending, a visitor in a strange world. I've given up my admission to that place.

It's just a lot more fun to throw my hair in a ponytail, dab on some sunscreen and head for the outdoors. Girly girls don't do well there. They like flush toilets. They don't like bugs. They would never brush their hair with a fork or cling to a cliff face just because they want to see if there is a lake on the other side. Girly girls wouldn't like no showers for a week or bears around their tents.

Forgive me, girly girls, but you are missing out. There is something about bashing through the brush for hours, slipping on deer cabbage, seeking out the best routes, and finally breaking out into the open, next to the still-frozen lake in mid-July. There is something about being dirty, tired, hungry, footsore, throwing your pack down next to the river and dunking your head. There's something about knowing you don't need to rely on anyone else to set up the tent, help you across the river, survive.

I'll never have perfect hair or designer clothes. I won't be one of the girly girls. But I won't apologize. I think I have the better part of the deal.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Where the wolves are

Recently a judge made a controversial decision: to allow helicopter landings in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness for collaring of wolves. The reasons given were that this will provide invaluable information on wolf behavior and travel patterns. You can justify anything these days.

Beyond the question of allowing helicopters into an area that is supposed to remain forever free of the noisy, fuel-guzzling machinery that has taken over the rest of our lives, I wonder about the necessity of knowing where the wolves are. The Frank is a wild, sprawling place, an untamed river running through its heart. It's rumored that a few secret grizzlies haunt the fringes. You can hike for days in some of the highest, untrailed places and not see anyone else.

I think that the not-knowing is the best part of wilderness. Not knowing what we'll see around the bend in the trail. Not knowing if we can cross the river. Not knowing where we'll sleep. Not knowing where the wolves are. In our normal lives, there are directions, diagrams, ingredient lists. There are help desks, customer service centers and FAQs. Why can't we have some mystery in our lives? Why do we need to know every little thing?

Leave the wolves alone, I say. Let them slink through the shadows, drink from the rivers, howl at the moon. They remind us of how we want to be, how we used to be, free and unknown.