Autumn, Phase Two

The benevolent first phase has passed, those days of sweet clear air, deep blue sky, and luminous warm colors of vine maple, huckleberry and mountain ash turning. Frosty nights are not too terrible if the sun shines the next day.

But sooner or later the jetstream shifts and the storms come. Phase two arrives with wet gray clouds and causes the forested landscape to suck up daylight like a black hole. Chunky rain slashes the air with ice and cold water. Leaves fall to lie in sodden clumps under bare branches. It is the time of the raven–their voices rasp through the fog.

The woolen long underwear is pulled out of its drawer. Hats and spare gloves go in the pack, and I put on gaiters before hiking. Every week I make a pot of soup for a thermos hot lunch. I walk to work in the dark. This is the new reality. Summer is a memory.

Big Wind, Many Raindrops

Got up in the dark to brew tea and sit quietly before going to work…the wind blew across the opening of the metal chimney, and rain clattered. When light came, I stepped out and heard the wind in the trees. The sound took me straight back to childhood. My parents bought an old farmhouse in the country, and my brother, sister and I slept upstairs. My memory is of angled ceilings and dormers, casement windows and corners. Our beds were tucked under the roof. Although it seemed further, the Pacific Ocean was about fifty miles to the west. Winter storms brought high winds and rain crashing in from the coast. That old house shook and rocked as the wind rushed around all the angles of the house. Rain battered the roof. And we slept, tucked under quilts made by grandmothers, with favorite stuffed animals beside us. I would wake in the dark to hear the voices of the Douglas-fir trees grow louder as the wind blew harder. The air animated them like nothing else.

I never learned to be afraid of the wind or trees. Alert, but not afraid. These things are alive and in motion, and I can only get hurt if I am in the wrong place at the right time. There’s nothing malicious about the wind. So I go out, to hear it and feel it (and come back in if it’s too harsh). The wind travels more miles from the ocean where I live now, and speeds up as it pushes through gaps in the mountains.

Inches of rain have fallen since last week’s return from the backcountry. Ventured out today to discover fresh snow on familiar peaks. After a long dry spell, the creeks rise. A big change and adjustments are needed: soup in the thermos for lunch, rain gear, extra layers, waterproofing on the boots.

I’m grateful for a sturdy roof, quilts, and a hot supper.

The Last Backcountry Trip of the Season

“Is that it there?” asked the helicopter pilot.

My eyes were busy taking in the landscape, hurrying to connect peaks and drainages into the familiar map in my mind. The speed of the aircraft was 105 miles an hour. I walk at two to three MPH, and rarely have the vantage point I had in the front seat next to the pilot. A flight is a wondrous opportunity to see the ground below, but I always feel a mad rush to take it all in.

“Yep,” I replied into the microphone on my flight helmet.

This was one of the fires sparked by lightning on September 8. Deep within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, it was a low priority for attention. Days passed while it crept and backed down the slope, occasionally flaring up enough to send smoke over the ridges. As the helicopter circled, I scribbled the fire’s shape on a contour map I held on my lap. Look and draw, hold details in memory long enough to get down on paper–my art training comes in handy.

After the reconnaissance flight I came home to pack. The packing routine starts in June, and by October I am thoroughly tired of loading and unloading my backpack. Not till the next morning did I overcome inertia and get all my gear in place. John and I planned to hike in to observe the fire for a few days. The upper Cle Elum valley was nearly deserted, and we had the golden meadows and deep blue shadows to ourselves.

After quickly setting up our tents near a meadow in Trail Creek, we found a cross country route to a high point where we could observe the fire. The upper part was black and cold, with the only real activity at the bottom of the fire where it had backed down to the heavy timber above Trail Creek. It had not moved significantly since I’d seen it the day before from the helicopter. Our mission was to map the burned area, estimate the acreage, note the intensity of the burn, and make other observations to include in a summary report. By 5:30 PM, we had to leave our perch to hike back to camp before dark. No long lingering sunsets in October. We finished our supper wearing down jackets and wool hats, leaning back to find the first stars emerging.

By morning, frost had crisped the meadow next to camp and we were eager to get moving just to warm up. The sun painted a golden band of light on the ridges above us. John is an excellent wayfinder, and after looking at the map together, I was content to let him pick the way up to the viewpoint we’d agreed on. My eyes were on the forest we hiked up through, searching for details that would tell the story of the wood that the fire burned in. I found evidence of a previous fire in the shreds of charred wood and fire-scarred old trees. The subalpine firs that made up much of the stand were about the same size and age. Huge old logs were rotting into the ground. A fire had burned through Trail Creek 75 to 100 years ago. Most of the trees were killed and stood as snags. Eventually they fell to melt into the soil that the new forest grew in. My guess is that the fire across the creek was burning in this duffy old wood on the ground. As we climbed higher, more sky was visible through the trees until we finally emerged on a rocky knob. There was no higher ground, and we actually descended to find the best viewpoint.

Neither of us had seen Waptus Lake from this angle before, and we stood for awhile just looking. The names of mountains and rivers make the lyric of the song I sang to myself for the whole day: Summit Chief, Chimney Rock, Lemah, Escondido Ridge, Quick Creek, Waptus Pass, Polallie Ridge, Cone Mountain, Goat Creek…we settled in to our fire-watching routine. We discovered another lightning strike just down the ridge, and ran like little kids to look (you can see it in the right-hand foreground of the photo). Sure enough, a little fire had torched a few small trees and burned itself out. This is how the day passed: the fire smoldered, the wind changed and carried the smoke in different directions. Hawks of all sorts flew over us and passed us, soaring upward on thermal currents. A family of ravens came from east to northwest to play in the air way above the creek. The sun’s angle lowered and shadows grew across the fire. When it was time, we packed up and made our way down through the yellow Cascade azalea and red huckleberry brush to the main trail.

Another cold night, colder than the previous one. We were slow to move, but the chilly air forced me off the ground to seek sunlight. The trail was frozen as we searched for yet another viewpoint. Often it seems like wherever you want to go, game animals have been there already. We found a deer trail and followed it to a bluff where we hung out. John is ready to be a solo fire watcher, and we reviewed the language to describe fuels and fire behavior. The fire enticed us to stay with a little flare up, but it was time to go. Lunch in camp, then packing for the hike out.

I fell into a state I can only describe as meadow bliss. The pack on my back felt lumpish and familiar (45-50 pounds?), but I wasn’t really aware of it. All I knew was that the weather forecast was changing, and I was leaving the mountains. This perfect day was only here now, and I wanted to experience it as fully as possible. I scrabbled my notebook out of my pocket and wrote while I walked: Mushrooms–fungi emerging from bone-dry earth, displacing soil & needle litter. sweet cicely arnica trailing raspberry lupine fine grasses fir seedlings. Breeze in boughs husssshhhhh ussshhh mmmmmmmmm sunwarmed blue-green needles stomata open, releasing balsam scent. Seed heads, gopher holes spruce cones scales flung open like a hundred cabinet doors paperwinged seeds flying. Gray jay. Shovel clangs softly on huckleberry brush. Ravens live here and they echo above the mountain hemlocks.

We stopped at Squitch Lake for no reason except it was beautiful. A special place, John calls it. I didn’t want to leave. And if I had to leave, I wanted to come back. We lingered, knowing that there was more trail ahead. Put packs back on, stepped into the shade.

Even in the shade colors glow. I framed a few more photos, marveling at the tapestry woven seemingly at random. Every direction I turned was a new composition.

The trail descends along a timbered north-facing slope, which seems especially dark this time of year. No sun penetrates to the ground. We walked down stony switchbacks, and I imagined the glacier that shaped the valley. The slope is on the lateral moraine, that ridge of rocky detritus left by the retreating glacier. There is no way to make the trail smooth, even if a crew shoveled rocks out of the tread every week till the end of time. Irregular cobbles just keep appearing, and bigger rocks are buried in the trail. John calls them icebergs, because only the tops show. The intrepid trail worker who decides to dig one out had better have some patience and time.

On the final traverse, my eye fell on a mushroom that had been plucked from the ground. When I picked it up, it was light and air-dried. I liked the creamy color, the waves of the gills, the intricate design. The whole trip had been filled with wonder and curiosity. We got to the truck and prepared for the hour and a half drive back to the ranger station. Even worse than packing is the transition back to civilization. It starts with the trailhead, then the truck. One has to move at a different speed, and more assaults on the senses lie ahead. After time in the wilderness, life becomes not simple. So we are pretty quiet, not talking much. We still look at the colors–vine maples in avalanche chutes–and I’ve run out of words. I’ve already used flare, flame, glow, ablaze, scarlet. All I have left is the looking.

The truck came to rest at the ranger station. Now I felt tired, the kind of tired where I don’t know what I wanted more–a hot meal, a hot bath, or just to fall into bed. Eventually I had all three.

It’s the second day after coming back. This afternoon I finally finished dumping out my pack and putting gear away. It’s raining.

In the backcountry, it’s raining. The Trail Creek fire will not be able to stay alive. The leaves will not be able cling to twigs a moment longer. The fire will let go. The leaves will let go. And I will let go of another season as winter comes a step closer.


It’s like saying goodbye to an old friend for awhile.

Yesterday I turned the compost and sifted out the good stuff. It is a miracle of nature that the skins, peels, stems and leaves from my kitchen turn into fertilizer. Also coffee grounds, tea bags, eggshells and other organic matter. I have a separate pile for leaves, grass clippings and garden leftovers–no reason for two piles, except curiosity. As I dug into the kitchen pile I discovered a prodigious population of red wiggler worms. They found their way to the compost when I started the pile, along with lots of other invertebrates and fungi. They’re all doing a fine job with very little help from me.

The finished compost goes on the raised vegetable beds, which have mostly been harvested and cleaned up. A chicken wire “Kitty Excluder Device” goes over the soil. No cats or other varmints permitted. The ground is already starting to freeze. I work in the sunny cold weather, warm as long as I keep moving.

To glean is to gather the remains. I picked kale and lettuce and parsley with painfully chilly fingers. These small amounts escape my attention when the garden is in full production. I’m busy canning and freezing and drying, and a handful of leaves is barely worth my time. But now morning frosts are hard as iron, and each day is a little shorter. Most of the plants have died or gone dormant. The bees are hunkered in their hive. The only birds are goldfinches that come to the sunflower heads to pluck a seed, and the ravens passing over the house.

It’s time to bring in these last green bits–tender kale leaves for my supper soup, and a few frostbitten chrysanthemums. Transplant a clump of parsley into the plastic tunnel where it will awake early in spring. Cover all with compost mulch, and let it go. Let it go with good wishes for sweet winter dreams.


Chilly days in the quiet woods…the summer birds have flown south and the squirrels don’t have much to say. Raven calls echo in the distance, and there is the muffled tap-tap of a woodpecker on a tree trunk. Hiking in to the work site in the morning, boots crunch on ice crystals growing out of the wet earth. My eyes go for contrast: the leathery green kinnikinnick leaves are vibrant against the remaining red huckleberry bushes. Rain-plumped mosses flow over rough boulders and fins of rock. It’s a visual feast.

The cold weather makes us hungry. People root around in lunch bags for snacks, and we all agree to eat lunch a little early.

At the end of the day, I fall behind the others. My trail days are numbered, and I want to savor some of the last hiking on dirt. Soon there will be six feet of snow on this trail. Soon I will be spending more time in the office, making the transition from summer to winter work. I walk as quietly as I can. There is a soft sound and movement behind me. I turn, and vine maple leaves are winnowing to the ground. A puff of air and a few more release from their twigs to twirl nearly weightless until they rest on the earth.

Fall is about letting go; about landing as gracefully as possible.


October 18, 2011
Latitude 47 11.5′ North
Longitude 120 56.5′ West
Day length: 10 hours 48 minutes

Barely daylight when I leave the house for work, so I don’t see that a killing frost has zapped the tomato plants that I finished harvesting a few days ago. The first light has been pinkish and hazy. The woods stay in deep shadow until nearly 10 o’clock when the sun finally penetrates through the trees. We work on a south-facing slope. Soon we are shedding layers of clothing. Faces turn to the sun–it’s warm and good.

All day long the mountains play peekaboo through the trees. I stop for glances at the snow-dusted peaks, so blue this time of year. Mt. Rainier is visible through a convenient low spot in the ridges. Katie calls it “The Big Kahuna.” Moment by moment the light changes, dappling and flickering vine maple leaves, briefly flaring on huckleberry bushes as the leaves drop. When our work is done, we hike down Tired Creek. The sun is in my eyes and the air has taken on that magical smoky quality of October. Mountain ash leaves are serrated flames. Cottonwoods go up in a blaze of gold against blue-green mountainsides. As perfect as this all is, spots of darkness appear on the leaves. Some are already dried and papery. Nothing holds still.


Fieldwork is slowing down until winter really arrives. Last week was spent in the classroom attending an excellent training session on interpretive guide concepts and techniques. After three days inside, my body and mind felt like a trapped bird. I went for a long walk in the scruffy patch of woods behind the ranger station and that helped. On the last day of training, we finished in the early afternoon and I came home. Mild weather made for a few idyllic hours in the garden.

I love to have my hands busy. Moving around to do familiar chores gives me time to digest all the new ideas and experiences I had this week. I prepared more compost for the vegetable beds, built the lettuce tunnel (with 6 mil plastic, tough stuff!), watched Henry’s antics as he kept me company, and heard the soft sounds of maple leaves falling. When I looked up into the tree, it occurred to me that they were the exact color of cadmium yellow light watercolor paint, right from the tube. The blue sky is a more complex color. No pigment completely captures it. Cerulean blue can be pretty good, but it can also be opaque and grainy. Sometimes a mix of cobalt blue with a little pthalo green gets close to the color and transparency. Then I wonder: is it better to match the color exactly, or get close enough to remind the viewer of their own perceptions and experiences of that color? After all, none of us sees things quite the same way. So maybe we’re lucky to have as much in common as we do, and be able to use language to express it.

In the lettuce tunnel–three kinds of lettuce, pac choi, kale, tatsoi, parsley. Even if I don’t get many greens this fall and winter, the plants will revive as soon as the spring sun hits the plastic. I went through my seed stash looking for green onion seeds, but didn’t find any. Hm. What am I going to do about that?

Life is moving inward. The past couple of days have been overcast. Almost glum. It rained in the night. Henry and Hibachi are wound into tight balls of oblivious cat fur. They’re going to glare when I put on the lively music and start dancing around cooking and cleaning for a trail crew end-of-season feast this evening.

Fog City

Katie and I headed south to the neighboring ranger district to help their backcountry trail crew. We have some special skills and tools which make moving recalcitrant pieces of rock much easier. We had scouted this piece of trail about a year ago, hiking up toward Bluebell Pass to a section of trail that needed the rock backslope widened. It had been a lovely late summer day, with changing colors and extensive views (also ripe huckleberries for snacking). Our guide pointed out Fog City–not a city at all, but an open basin below a bare ridge. At one time, he told us, there had been a mining settlement here. It even had its own post office. The topography and proximity to the Cascade crest made it a foggy spot. When the clouds blew in, they would linger in this place.

We got to learn about the fog first hand this past week. We camped there and experienced the typical unsettled weather of early September. It rained. The wind blew. We worked in mist. Sometimes there would be a tantalizing glimpse of a ridge in the distance, but soon the clouds flowed back in.

Long ago I learned that staying warm is much more important than staying dry. Dressing in layers, with fine merino wool next to the skin, holds the body’s heat in. Raingear keeps the wind out. A warm hat is a necessity. Keep moving. Eat high energy food. Have a hot drink at lunch time. Taking wet boots off after work is a real treat. Feet like cadaverous prunes go into dry socks, then into the sleeping bag. Nice. Then those same feet (happily warm and dry) go back into the cold wet boots in the morning. It almost makes me whimper, but I’ve been through the routine many times and I know it gets better after coffee and hiking.

The thing about fog is that it changes perception of space. The world becomes a little flatter. The light is disorienting. Without shadows and highlights, distances become uncertain. Looking down at the conical spires of subalpine firs, and am aware of the air around them. They are turgid and blue-green with condensation, growing in their own spaces. How have I never noticed the shapes around trees in such a way before?

Such noticing is a benefit of my job. As I hike back and forth from the work site to camp I have time to look and think, just as I would as if I were driving. But the walking is better–the scent of wet Alaska yellow cedar, the flitting of juncos, mist on my face, the brilliance of paintbrush against a green backdrop. I would use cadmium red light to paint the paintbrush flowers. And Hooker’s green and quinacridone gold. Fall is the time for contemplating pigments. And drying boots at home.