Wednesday, September 24, 2008

September 8

I worked for a week with a pipe-pounder named Big Red down at the Russian River. The pipe-pounder is, true to its name, big and red and deadly. It big because it is and it is red because someone spray painted it that color and it is deadly for many reasons. It's integral feature is a heavy rope that holds a 350 pound weight that becomes frayed and worn due to heat from friction on the pulley and the spinning head. It is deadly because that 350 pound weight is repeatedly hoisted high above our heads by the fraying rope and then drops with all its might on the 10 foot pipe that must be pounded into the rocky-as-all-hell river bottom. It is deadly because the 15 ft boom to which the pulley is attached is made of aluminum and bends and warps with each hoist of the 350 pound weight. It is deadly because the rope is coiled around a spinning head and the human hoisters could be caught in the rope and the spinning head. It is deadly because it spouts diesel exhaust. My last day of work was September 11 and during those 40 hours we pounded 15 or so pipe. There are 50 more to do. I am not sorry to leave this machine of death and destruction. Nor am I sad to leave the dark dank dorm of doom. I will spend the next two weeks house and Lilly sitting in Cooper Landing for a couple of Stream Watch Volunteers. Lilly is a tough 13 year old cocker spanial who snuffled into my suitcase and devoured 7 energy bars.

September 13

Mom came to visit and we had a lot of fun. We hiked more than 86 miles in the 9 days while she was here. It seems as though I saved the best hikes for last and the weather was glorious. Fall has reached us here on the peninsula and the colors are stunning. Every morning the snow line creeps down the mountains and every day the sun burns through the clouds and the bright blue sky sits in amazing contrast to the yellow and orange leaves. Each hike that we did was unique in its own way. I think I will post pictures instead of words.

Day One: Matt, Jennie, Kelly, Mom and I had lunch at Sleeping Lady Brewery. I remember liking their beer but I was too distracted to really pay attention to the quality or style of the beer. I had an amber I think. It was good and I took the pint glass! Then Matt, Mom and I braved Best Buy on PFD check day. I had to pick up my computer from the Geek Squad and it was madder than the day after Thanksgiving. We wrapped up the Anchorage trip with a stop at Midnight Sun Brewery where I bought a growler full of authentic German hefeweizen. Yummy!

Sleeping Lady Brewery

Midnight Sun Brewery

Day Two: We took a boat to see Portage Glacier and then we took a train to see Spencer Glacier. Carolyn was our friendly USFS representative on the 4 mile round trip hike. She kept us in line and on time to catch the train for the return trip.

Portage Glacier

The Alaska Railroad

Shasta the high-fivin' husky

Spencer Glacier Whistle-stop

In awe of Spencer Glacier

Day Three: We hiked to Bench and Johnson Lakes on the Johnson Pass trail. We saw six bears (three black and three brown) from afar.

Johnson Pass

Day Four: It rained and rained and rained. But we didn't let that stop us as we hiked to Crow Pass and Raven Glacier. The rain and the rising and lowering clouds seemed to make the experience even more surreal than it already was. The rain put my new event rain jacket to the test and it proved itself over and above the competition. I stayed dry to damp while mom became soaked in her gortex.
Raven Glacier as seen from Crow Pass

Day 5: Many of my coworkers had recommended Devils Pass as one of their favorite trails. It was not a disappointment in the least. We left the tree line after three miles and hiked in the alpine for the next seven. Wave after wave of migrating cranes passed overhead and scenery and weather were splendid.

Day 6: We hiked to Lower Russian Lake. This hike holds a special place in my heart because I actually worked on this trail. At the beginning of the season we used ATVs to haul gravel load after gravel load up the wheelchair accessible trail to fill in the washed out areas. We also replaced several culverts and used a tamping machine. Lower Russian Lake is also where Katie and I first encountered the elusive and mysterious Moo Chirp and where Rachel and I helped the Cabins Crew demolish the deck of Barber Cabin. A spur trail leads to the Russian River Falls and this is where you can see salmon jumping. It intermittently sprinkled rain and had the sun shine so there were a lot of rainbows in the air!

Day 7: The last time I planned to do this trail, I got way-layed because there was still a lot of snow in the higher elevations. That was in mid-July. The hike from Lost Lake trail head to Primrose trail head is about 16 miles and full of grandeur and beauty. At the high point you see Resurrection Bay to the South, Mount Alice in the distance to the West, Mount Ascension towering over you to the East and the Lost Lake network pooling blue beneath you to the North. While all the while giant fat, baby bear-like marmots whistle and bold for their holes or stand sentry on guard. The wooded parts of the hike were ripe with blueberries and mom and I easily picked a gallon or more of them on the way down. I, at this moment, deem this one of my favorites in all Alaska. As Megan told us, when you reach the high point, you can hear the angels singing!

Day 8: I have drooled over the Harding Ice Field in earlier posts. Mom and I did this hike despite the call for thunderstorms. They lied, it was a gorgeous day and we had a wide clear view. We watched a very amusing traffic jam through binoculars take place on the trail ahead and above us. It began with a black bear on the mountain side, foraging toward the trail. Then a herd of 16 goats grazed up toward the trail and down-trail from the bear. Some goats crossed the trail and moved upward onto the rocky scree above. About 6 goats lingered to graze below. About this same time a family of 6 hiked up the trail and stopped about 60 feet short of the bear, who, by the way, was paying them no mind. While that family pondered on their next course of action, four more hikers joined them below the bear on the trail while four others were stopped above the bear as the hiked down. The bear moved little during all of this, but half of the people down trail began to hike up onto the scree to skirt the bear while half of the people up trail began to hike through below the bear. At some point, the bear was surrounded by folks and goats and the whole thing looked pretty funny from afar. Finally, the trail became clear in the down-trail direction and the bear moseyed in that direction. By this point, mom and I had left the trail altogether and were making a b-line for the high point and the view of the ice field. While there we were joined by a smaller black bear who snuffled around the rocks behind us. Our attention was divided between moments of bear viewing and ice field viewing.

Exit Glacier

September 23: I hiked up the Summit trail on my own and found myself in a winter wonderland.

That, sadly, concludes my hiking adventures in the Chugach National Forest.

August 30th
Denali was amazing. Words cannot describe the beauty of this national park; nor can pictures. The day that I left Oregon it was so hot and beautiful that I got a sunburn despite my sunscreen. In Anchorage and Moose Pass, the air was temperate and the leaves on the trees were green. The sun burned coolly in the sky and I hiked to Greyling Lake that Saturday and sampled some fine wild raspberries and blueberries. It seemed that summer was lingering yet.
However, as Michael and I hitched northward the fall colors slowly began to emerge on the mountainsides. In a sea of green, a single cottonwood had burst into yellow flame or the black spruce, birch, aspen and cottonwood type forest were sprinkled with oranges and yellows. The bare sub-alpine and alpine hills and crests were covered in blueberry bushes that had begun to redden and the ravines were like rainbows beginning with emerald green and spreading to blue to yellow to orange to red and then brown.
The Monday that we hitchhiked to Denali was sunny and the two spunky women that gave a ride from Anchorage to Willow had originally planned to pick blueberries just a couple miles outside of Anchorage. However, the day was so nice that they decided to drive 70 miles out of their way for us. The older woman regaled us with stories of her youth. She came her from Germany when she was 18 and promptly met and married her husband and went on to have all sorts of crazy adventures. They drove of as far as the Denali viewpoint in Willow. While we took picture after picture of the gleaming white behemoth through the haze, she schmoozed with some other tourists who were on their way to Denali and convinced them to give us a ride. They were from Germany and Australia and drove a small compact rental car and they looked doubtingly at our giant backpacks. However, with some grunting and stuffing and crowding, we were all able to shove in. We spent the ride pinned to our seats by our backpacks and a little worried for our lives as they took pictures out the windshield while driving. The car swerved dangerously into oncoming traffic as we all tried to glimpse Denali and the stunning scenery through the trees.
We arrived at the park headquarters at 5:00 and tried to orient ourselves. However, the ride had been long and it was difficult to suddenly switch from passive passenger to no-nonsense trip-organizer. In order to go backpacking in Denali you have to first register with the Back Country Information Center, watch a safety film, listen to a safety talk and get permits for the sections that you are planning to spend each night in.
Denali is divided into sections and each section has a limit to the number of people that can stay in it each night. There are no trails to speak of and no designated back country camping places and so I felt quite lost as I gazed at a giant topo of the park. I had to come up with five sections to stay in and they had to the best and the most scenic and I had no clue where to go. The rangers were helpful but they really are not in the business of telling you what to do or planning your trip for you. So Michael and I fumbled around with the map. We would decide on a section to stay in only to find it at capacity for the night. Apparently we were there during the height of backpacking season. We eventually mapped out what we thought would be a good solid trip and left the BIC with a couple of Park Service-issued bear cans and a permit.
Personal vehicles are not allowed in the park. Everyone is able to access the park by loading onto to forest green school buses that leave the entrance of the park at regular and frequent intervals. They stop often at rest stops and over looks and they always stop for a great view of Denali or animals. Passengers are allowed to get off the bus anytime they wish to disembark for a day hike or a backpacking trip. The buses also picks up hikers and backpackers waiting along the side of the road. It is really an ingenious system and it frees everyone from the steering wheel to ogle the scenery and animals. It also reduces congestion and pollution and completely does away with having to organize shuttles for through hikes or the stress of dealing with the uncertainties of hitchhiking. The permit/safety system for back country hikers and the buses are two things which I think every national park should embrace (I'm talking to you Glacier and Yellowstone) and perhaps other places where there is a lot of ignorant tourists who know not how to treat the land (yes, you, Russian River).
We boarded our bus Tuesday morning at 10:40 am. We road through black spruce forest areas. Our bus driver offered lots of interesting facts and trivia about the park and we learned quite a bit from her comments. Our first stop was at an overlook of a wide and braided stream bed. The wind whipped coolly through the cottonwoods and the sun glinted off the the icy muddy water coursing in its braids. The road continued to wind further into the park and the spruce gave way to open rolling hills with snow capped peaks in the distance. The alpine was awash with color. The willows were yellow and the low blueberries were burnt red and some ground cover plant was bright vibrant red. In the well-watered areas the grass was vibrant green and blooming wildflowers lent an occasional burst of purple or blue to the pallet of colors.
Once we left the spruce forest, we began to see wildlife aplenty. We saw bears many times; three of them, pawed in the huckleberries along side of the road, two were rooting up some vermin or another, one was trekking through the willows. Oh, we saw a lot of bears! We also saw a wolf feeding on a carcass in the hazy distance, caribou grazing along tundra, ptarmigan flocking along the side of the road and Dall sheep dotting the craggy mountain sides.
At Polychrome Overlook we had a stunning view of a braided stream bed in the foreground and a row of rocky and snow studded mountains in the background. Though I couldn't see them, I felt that each twisted valley and canyon of the mountains held a glacier. I felt the cool wind on my cheeks and could somehow sense the almost stagnant flow of the ice behind the misty shrouds of clouds hung up on those cold wet rocks. My senses were overwhelmed by sunlight, bright blue sky, dazzling white Denali, the polychrome colors of the Toklat river valley, the great green buses and the elusive glaciers just waiting one bend away from my sight. There...each one with its own canyon that it had been chewing out for centuries. Each one sliding slowly with gravity and melting, sending away a braided stream of muddy, silty water. The land new under my feet. The out wash planes just beginning to support vegetation. How is soil built under these conditions? Where, in the rocky waste land did these hearty plants find nutrients? Everything seemed so raw and new here, at the edge of the earth. Mysteries of geography and geology are, at the same time, revealed and proposed; this valley was so obviously carved by a glacier, but how did life find its way after the cold ice receded?
About five hours into our bus ride, at Eileson Visitors Center, we had our first view of Denali since yesterday. The sky was clear and the mountain was out and it was huge and in our face! The bus driver informed us that such stunning views of the mountain had only happened about 10 times this summer. We were lucky. The mountain is so tall that it creats it own weather and it is often hidden by a blanket of clouds even if it is sunny nearby. Denali towered over its brothers, a bright white mound against a bright blue sky. It's relief is greater than that of Mount Everest. It was difficult for me to believe that from its roots to its peak, this is the tallest-"looking" mountain out there. It was also difficult to be peaceful here amidst the tourists and the interpretive signs and the clicking cameras. I, myself, couldn't stop taking picture after picture. There is something about human nature that wants to preserve and remember. We forced ourselves to stand silently for a minute in reverence and recognition. I let all the hype slide away, all the pressure that I had built up to see this national treasure. I let the mountain sink into my eyes and I let the wonder flow around. People should see this place, not to "check" it off there list but to truly appreciate the power of nature; its creative force even as it destroys. Oregan was in the full throes of summer, Moose Pass was at summer's tail end, and here in Denali the mornings are frosty and the hills are aflame with fall colors. Again, at the edge of the world, everything happens so fast.
We were dropped off by the bus driver at around 6:00 pm on the edge of a section at the end of the road near Wonder Lake. We stood and watched the bus pull away and I felt small and a little helpless. We had everything we would need to survive...two smart adults with a lot of backpacking and hiking experience between us. But there, at the foot of this giant mountain with winter knocking on the door, with no trail in site, amidst the grizzlies and the howling wind, and the green bus growing small in the distance, I felt frightened and unsure. Of course, this passed quickly as we walked along the stream bed of Moose Creek for a couple of miles. Denali was still alight with alpine glow behind us and as we walked a new set of mountains emerged in front of us, pink in the setting sun. We set up camp in the middle of the blueberry bushes, throwing the safety talk's warnings of being disturbed by foraging bears to the wind. We cooked dinner and found ourselves with too much food and too little of appetites. We decided to bury the food far away instead of stuffing ourselves. I felt uneasy about this as we were in grizzly country and the slightest scent of food can bring them running. However, I couldn't eat another bite. The wind howled all night and I slept little. It blew so hard that the tent was practically lying flat and by morning only two stakes were left in the rain fly. We were supposed to get up at 4:30am to catch a bus to our next hiking destination but the wind, the cold and the darkness made us rethink our plans and we decided to catch a later bus.
We started Wednesday's hike from a bridge just west of Polychrome Overlook. We hiked along the braided stream bed of a tributary of the Toklat River for more than four miles. The water was muddy gray glacier melt off and as we hiked further and further into the glacial canyon the wind blew cold and stiff. I did not want to spend another night in the wind so we searched for a place that was sheltered from the gusts and finally settled on a dry narrow river bed. Twilight had descended by that time. As we ate dinner, I saw a strange silhouette on the mountain ridge above us. We couldn't tell for sure what kind of animal it was but in moved back and forth along the ridge and we watched it until it disappeared in the darkness.
Thursday morning was glorious and filled with animals. As we hiked along the stream bed to the glacier, a whole herd of caribou descended from the ridges and milled about in the valley bottom. There were close to fifty of them and we skirted around them as best we could. We did come face to face with a whole group of juveniles and we played a game of chicken; we approached them and they approached us until, in a flurry of hooves and rocks, they turned swiftly and ran away on nimble feet. Just past the caribou herd we encountered a family of snowy white Dall sheep. We had spotted them on the ridge earlier that morning and they had descended while we watched the caribou. The going became even more gravely and hummocky as we neared the glacier. We had to crawl up and over moraines and go well out of our way to avoid treacherous stream crossings and steep banks. The wind was cold and the rain began to smatter. The mist, it seemed, clung to the mountains and we lingered in the rain and cold only long enough to take in the glacier and its slow great flow.
We retraced our steps with the wind at our backs. In order to get to that night's section, we had to cross the braided muddy glacial river. The safety video had cautioned us with grave warnings of hypothermia and even death as a result of improper stream crossings. Fortunately, the water was low this time of the year. However, the hype surrounding stream crossings made me feel as though I was about to do the most dangerous thing I had done in a long time. In reality, it was a cinch. We put on sandals, hiked up our pants and waded knee deep into the freezing cold water. It was flowing fast, but not fast enough to make me lose my balance or sweep me off my feet. It took all of 30 seconds but in that 30 seconds, my feet became numb with the cold and it took all of 30 minutes of hiking before they felt more like feet with nimble toes than heavy cement blocks.
We hiked up the side of the valley and followed sheep and goat trails though the rocky talus slopes. We eventually made our way out the valley and up onto a rolling hill covered in red blueberry bushes and green heather. We found a sheltered place out of the wind and set up camp. Then we watched the Caribou retreat from the valley below us back onto the slopes across from us. The alpine glow struck the craggy peaks behind us and a coolness descended with the darkness.
Friday, we hiked up and over the ridge and descended into another glacial valley. We left our packs in the braided stream bed and hiked up towards the glacier. We couldn't see it yet but we could tell it was there...around the corner because of the muddy water flowing past us, the shape of the valley and cool wind in our face. As we hiked, I spotted something moving ahead of us and upon further inspection identified it as a grizzly and two cubs. We scrambled up the stream bank and approached them from afar. We were about a soccer field away from them and 20 feet straight up a steep bank but I still felt a zing of excitement run up my spine. A grizzly is a great and awesome animal. The lore surrounding them makes me respect and fear them. However, at a distance, they looked like cute rolly poly blond bunches of fur and fluff. Their coats were frosted blond and they pushed their snouts into the ground, rooting for vermin and other tasty things. The sow was especially big and furry and her head was huge and ringed by a healthy collar of fluff. The babies were aglow and even more rolly poly. They seemed butt heavy but that did not hamper thier frisking about. After awhile, we realized that there were three cubs instead of two. When the mother caught our scent, her head shot up and then she spotted us. In less than a second, she had rounded up her cubs and darted up the valley side away from us. We were able to watch their ascent as they high-tailed it along a goat trail. The mother threw us worried looks and the cubs fell behind. She left the goat trail and ran straight up a gravel shoot. The cubs, not entirely sure why they were running, fell behind and she did not wait. Eventually, all four were but a sihouette on the ridge and then they disappeared over the other side. We continued up the valley to the glacier. It was covered in dirt and was not nearly as impressive as the bright blue ones but it was still awe-inspiring.
As evening closed in and we made yet another stream crossing, the rain and storms rolled in. We sloshed up a ravine of mucky chalk-like stuff and sunk in ankle deep. The wind blew cold and we were saturated by the sleeting rain. We quickly set up camp and cooked dinner. We shivered as we ate and even the hot noodles couldn't warm us up. The rain was a dismal affair indeed and I had to wear all my layers and use hand warmers in order to get warm enough to sleep. Even though it was our last night in Denali, it was our first with rain so I could not complain. The rain had stopped sometime in the night but we had to pack everything up damp and dewy. We got to see more bears and moose on the bus ride out of the park. I also got to see my friend and fellow fire fighter in Oregon, Jen. She is a park ranger in Denali. I also saw a fellow Moose Pass resident who was working on the road construction crew!
We were out of the pristine and wildlife-filled park and on the highway with our Anchorage sign by noon. After an hour of thumbing, we were picked up by some seasonals from Fairbanks who worked for a gold panning tourist company. They dropped us off at the local brewpub in Anchorage where we had some beers and recharged our phones and cameras. I was able to hitch a ride to Moose Pass and spent most of Sunday drying out and reconnoitering after having been gone for almost a month.
Alpine glow
caribou on highway
Denali Highway with Denali in the distance
Rachel, Wonder Lake and Denali

Sunday, September 07, 2008

I should probably start from where I left off, I will try to muster some eloquence for the half-month-long overdue update.

I will begin with the late arrival of summer (August 16th): The clouds cleared up and the sun shown brightly and consistently for almost a week. The blueberries ripened, the long sleeve shirts were shed and we ran around in sandals and bare feet! We basked and blossomed in the sizzling 65-70 degree weather! I was very lucky to have a weekend right in the midst of Alaska's short summer!

I went fishing for Sockeye salmon at the infamous Russian River and was immediately successful. I am beginning to understand and become more competent in the process of fishing. I am more adept at casting. I rarely catch the hook on foliage behind me or on the other side of the creek. I am also more composed when a fish is on the end of the line. I still holler "fish on" and my heartbeat quickens. I am also better at landing the fish.

Salmon fishing is not complicated once you know the basics. Sockeye salmon are only good to eat if they are chrome colored. (As the salmon swim upstream to spawn, they begin to change form and color. Each species of salmon has a different color that they turn as they slowly begin to die. Sockeye go from silvery-chrome to a bright green head and bright red body) The fish are at different stages of spawning and therefore, the river is stacked with chrome and red colored salmon. The flesh of the red salmon is beginning to rot even as they live and they have developed ugly humps on their backs. The reds are a scary fish to deal with indeed and I quickly learned to discern whether or not the fish I had hooked was chrome or red. If it was chrome, I kept the tip of my pole high and gave the line some slack. Then I reeled in the line as I backed up to the shore to land it. If the fish was red, then I put the tip of my rod down and gave the line a lot of slack, hoping that the fish would work free in the current.

That day, the first chrome fish that I hooked pulled my rod apart at the second joint. It was imperative now more then ever, that I land the fish. Losing the fish meant losing the top third of my rod as well. Thankfully, I did manage to land the fish and salvage my rod. All I had to do was shove it back together more tightly at the joint. Killing fish makes me incredibly squeamish and I am not going to go into the details of gutting and filleting. I am still unsettled by the process of killing animals for food. While I have no issues with other people harvesting animals for their own use, I am still struggling to balance my vegetarian tenets with my desire to eat locally and provide food for myself to whatever extent possible. Living in a place that does not produce a lot of local produce and is far away from any that might be shipped has made me reconsider my values and how my vegetarian lifestyle might not be living up to those values. (It takes a lot of energy and resources to barge fruits and veggies all the way up here). In addition, trying to provide for myself through fishing and picking berries etc. has also brought the circle of life into sharp focus.

The salmon are amazing creatures and I am in awe of their life-cycle. Salmon an integral part of the food chain and are a keystone species. The entire Alaskan system (from humans to bears to micro-organisms to plant life) depends on these creatures and their ability to swim upstream, spawn, die and then decompose.

I hiked to Harding Icefield on the next day of summer with a friend from the district named Josh. The hike was about 7 miles of a fairly steep slope through high alpine tundra and across slick snow fields. We saw a couple of black bears and ptarmigan as well as marmots and eagles. The hike parallels Exit Glacier which spills out from the Harding Icefield. The icefield stretches for miles and miles and has the tops of mountain peaks emerging from its vast whiteness. From a distance, it is difficult to make out the terrain of the icefield but as you draw closer, steep slopes and rises and dips become apparent. The icefield is especially intriguing to me because it covers some of the only remaining unmapped parts of the earth. It is impossible to know what the terrain under the icefield is or will be like because the ice is constantly changing and cutting at the rocks beneath it. I was standing on the brink of the unknown and unpredictable!

I hiked up to Mount Alice with another friend of mine, Michael. We had a bit of a false start when we attempted to hike up the wrong drainage through prickly devil's club and dense aspens. We quickly reconnoitered and found the actual trail head, unmarked though it was. Mount Alice is on the brink of Resurrection Bay and overlooks the Snow River valley and the town of Seward. The hike was mostly straight up and then meandered through the alpine which quickly gave way to craggy rock and ice. We spent a lot of time ogling the amazing views of the bay and city of Seward as well as Harding Icefield in the distance. We spent some time orienteering and triangulating but quickly realized that my compass was woefully inadequate for such a task, especially with the northern inclination being so large. We also made snow angels in a snow field and scrambled up a rock scree to get the highest point possible. Once there, we spotted a black bear nosing around in a field beneath us. A glacier glittered across the ravine with a lacy waterfall trailing out beneath it. The clouds closed in, parted and misted time and time again. I felt like I was in Avalon or some other ancient mystic place. We glisaded down a snow field and tumbled down the gravel trail. I slipped and cut the meaty part of my palm on the sharp slate. I had a small but deep cut that didn't bleed too much because my hands were so cold and had little circulation.

I took a sick day from work the next day to allow my hand to heal. I rode Katie's bike to Victor Creek trail head and made a day out of picking blueberries, watermelon berries and raspberries and scaling a fairly large snowfield in an avalanche shoot. The snowfield was so steep and treacherous that I decided to abort my bid for the top. Even though I didn't make it to the top of the snowfield I still had excellent views of a glacier and the rushing roaring Victor Creek. Later, I learned that I was going to leave the next morning for Oregon to fight fire with a 20 person inter-agency hand crew for the next 16 or so days. I spent the rest of that evening closing up my affairs and packing up. I was so relieved to finally get the fire call. I felt like my life had been on hold or contingent upon the fire call. I was, however, a bit disappointed about having to miss out on a John Prine concert in Homer as well as more fun hikes and the onslaught of real "summer" weather.


"Those who don't build must burn. It's as old as history and juvenile delinquence."
Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451

The possibility of going to fight fire on a 20 person type 2 hand crew in the states has been hanging over my head for what seems like months. It began as a small thorn in my side or a hot spot on my heel as the documentation of my certifications got lost in the governmental circular file - some glitch in the transfer of information from one district to another. Fire festered as July rolled on and the trail crew supervisors admitted they did not have any projects for the crews because "fire in August was a sure thing." Instead our crews fumbled through several minor projects that didn't have much worth and only took hours of the day. The rest of the days we spent hiding from the overhead-going to Claire's house for coffee, sitting on logs near the trail, going to Seward on small errands etc. So you can imagine how much I was counting on a 2 week fire assignment to save me from the idleness and monotony of work and really challenge my muscles and mind. Crew after crew from our district left but still a few of us remained in Alaska, idle and in the rain. I actually passed up a trip to Denali with Matt and Wade, thinking that I would miss my chance to go on a fire. However, as I mentioned earlier, I got the call and headed off to Oregon the next day at 4 am!

My crew was composed of people from all over Alaska and from all different backgrounds. There were trail rats from Cordova, Flower Sniffers from Denali, Fire Dogs from Homer, ecologists from Fairbanks and a hand full of us from the SRD. We all had different flights into Portland and I spent most of the day waiting for all of us to conglomerate in the airport. We rented four six pack rigs and drove to Detroit, OR where we set up camp in a school field in the pouring rain- bad sign. Our crew boss divided us up into modules. Module A, my module, was a saw team with 3 sawyers and their swampera. Module B was a line-digging force.

The next day, we reported for duty at 5:30 am and spent most of the day waiting in the rigs in the compound parking lot. My rig-mates happened to be the Crew Boss, Matt, and the Crew Boss trainee Torey, as well as Riggle, a cabin crew worker from Girdwood, and my fellow SRD trail rat, Chase. We had three i-pods between us and we listened to tunes through the radio with the help of an adaptor. At around 15:00, Module A was summoned to a .4 acre ex-fire caused by a lightening strike. We gridded and mopped up the area as well as dug a line around it and sprayed any hot spots with water from a backpack pump. We got drenched by the rain in the process and spent most of the evening trying to dry off at the compound.

The next day we staged all day in the rigs on the brink of an ex-fire caused by another lightening strike. The Incident Commander and his underlings had decided that the rainy, windy and foggy weather as well as the steep terrain and the prolific amount of dead snags made the situation far to dangerous to engage in. So we sat and listening to music for 14 hours.

To explain: The Willamette National Forest received over 100 lightening strikes in a thunder and lightening storm just prior to our arrival. The powers that be didn't want a single fire to burn because it might burn onto private timber company land and wreak havoc and disaster on the their business. Therefore, about 5 hand crews, 5 engines, a helitac crew, several professional tree fallers and about a dozen other resources were ordered to form a giant fire fighting and suppressing force. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the rain began pouring the day we all arrived and all of us resources found ourselves woefully in lack of the adrenaline-rushing-hazard-pay-overtime-invoking fire we had all been dreaming of. Instead, we found ourselves on the mop-up-line-around-and- staging ex-fire fighting force of doom. While this may all sound dismal and disastrous, it was, in fact, quite a riot and I found myself quite tickled by the insanity. I found my situation as swamper particularly hilarious. I was tasked with being Riggle's swamper. As a swamper, I am supposed to carry a Pulaski and a dolmar full of gas. I am also supposed to move all of the things that Riggle cuts with the saw out of the way so that the way is clear for the module digging line behind the sawyers. My first problem: how do I move things with my hands when my hands are full of dolmars and Pulaskis. My solution: given the incredibly steep terrain, I just sat down and slid pulling all the cut brush down with my body, arms and legs and when the pile got big enough, precariously perched the Pulaski and dolmar and moved the brush pile. My second problem (minor but highly laughable)- cold-trailing: We are supposed to take one glove off and feel in the ashes for hot spots that might be lingering. Again, my hands are full of Pulaski and dolmar. Hmm, I'll get right to that. I laughed so hard. My solution was to kick around in the ashes a lot and hope I would notice a not sopping wet muddy section if I came to it. My third problem was not really a problem as much as it was a hassle-three belts to undo every time I had to pee. That's right three. My pants, my line gear, my chaps and not to mention my shirt needed to tucked in and sometimes I was wearing rain gear too. My waist was really crowded.

On my birthday, we got to go find an ex-fire. We were given rough directions and we set out along the ridge to find it. A helicopter actually flew over the fire to give us more specific directions and I happened to be peeing at the exact moment that it passed over me and hovered for a moment-caught with my pants down! We found the ex-fire, which actually was smoking and over the course of our being there, actually had a stump that was visibly flaming. We only spent about an hour there because it was about to get dark and they didn't want anyone getting hurt in the dark. Safety first. We decided to call the fire the Rachel fire in honor of my birthday and I felt strangely satisfied that I got to see some open flame on my day.

At some point, the sun did come out and we all engaged in some really fun staging pass times. We played jump rope, jerk off, picked berries, twirled poi, played cards, hackey-sacked, read, made forts, whittled and did extensive statistical analyses of the contents of skittles packages. We also got super creative with our pack lunches and had some fun juice drinking contents. I got to listen to some really good music and hear some really interesting fire stories as well hang out with some pretty fun Alaskans. After about a week of the insanity, however, the Detroit Ranger District decided to demobilize the forces and we were sent home. A crew from Texas and our crew stayed at a ritzy ritzy place in Portland with an open bar from 5:30 to 7:30 so we lived it up. Then we lived it up some more at a brew pub called McMinnamin's and everyone sang me happy birthday and the bar tender gave me a free beer!

We were supposed to be gone for 17 days but were only gone for 11. So I decided to take the next week of work off and go to Denali National Park with my friend, Michael.
Rachel in full fire regalia: hard hat, nomex, chaps, gloves, line gear, ear plugs etc.
birthday crown of daisy's from Jen
Module B is "moving"
Riggle and Rachel: Module A's saw team extraordinaire!