Last week harkened back to an earlier era of Forest Service work. The trail crew stayed at the Fish Lake Guard Station to work on Cathedral Rock Trail and Deception Pass Trail. Logistically, it made sense to not spend three hours of our work day driving back and forth on the pothole-strewn Fish Lake Road. So we stayed at the guard station, a small cabin in a meadow that has been lovingly maintained for twenty years by volunteers Darrell and Ann Nelson. The cabin is government property, and its original intent is to provide temporary quarters to Forest Service employees working remotely. Which is what we were doing.
Our days started and ended on the porch. Seemed natural to perch there with tea in the morning and cold water in the evenings, looking across the meadow at the forested slopes. (I wondered where the corral would have been in the old days. If I went searching, I probably could have found signs of it.) Boots were laced up or taken off on that porch, depending on the time of day. The Cle Elum River was audible, but not visible, its deep voice the anchoring note of the chord that played all around us. A swift rill behind the cabin was a higher note. Trilling thrushes, the demented chirping of robins, and a host of other birds kept the melody weaving all through the mountain air. We sat out there till it was time to go to work, or until the mosquitoes and no-see-ums drove in through the screen door.
The days were humid. Water still comes down the mountainsides in the form of snowmelt, and the valley is full of lush plant growth. I walked out in to the meadow one evening, and as my camp shoes filled with water I remembered how swampy it is out there. But it was worth a close look–the wildflowers are at the height of bloom.
In my mind, I say their names. It’s a way of greeting old friends, returned for another season. Tiger lily, hellebore, bog orchid, columbine, yellow paintbrush, larkspur, lupine, elephant head…I never tire of being with them.
Our work was with crosscut saw and ax. For a few hours, the trauma of last year’s log cutting returned as we sawed and dealt with binding and pinching. Then we still had to move the chunks off the trail. We sweated. We swore. We stood in a creek to cut a log that had fallen in the water. We finally got it all done.
There are rewards. There is the view across Hyas Lake, with Canada geese cruising on the still surface. There are magnificent waterfalls roaring down. Buck mule deer with velvety antlers stop browsing to stare unafraid as we pass by. The nose twitches, ears flick. No worries. A water ouzel bounces up and down on a log we have yet to cut. A bear streaks across the road, a black blur. A weasel carrying a huge vole slinks toward us. The prey is bigger than the predator, yet the living animal springs into the vegetation with its meal.
In the middle of the night I crawl out of the tent to answer nature’s call, and stare up at a sky full of stars. No moon. The Milky Way reaches from ridge to ridge, forming a handle across the valley as if it is a basket. The whole world is held in this basket–river, meadows, trees, trails, animals, people, and all.
There are rewards, for sure. Doing good honest work, having a sweet place to stay. Unplugging from the increasingly wired world to pay attention to what’s right in front of us, to live simply and carry on traditions that started a hundred years ago. Surviving without air conditioning or electricity or any amusements more complicated than a book made from paper. Not just surviving, but living very well, thank you.
Yet we came back here. That’s the thing about what we do. We go out, we come back. We give our report on what we saw and did. Then have our days off and get ready to do it again.