Ranger Diary: Early Fall

mushroom

DAY ONE: September 9, 2013
Topic of the Day: Turning Season
Sometimes around Labor Day the weather pattern changes, bringing storms and enough rain to settle the dust. This year thunderheads piled up over the mountains, hammering the landscape with lightning and ferocious downpours. If a person is not too distracted by fire duty, they notice that the daylight hours are shorter and there is a hint of gold in the meadows. One of the more charming (to me anyway) aspects of early autumn is the emergence of fungal fruiting bodies–mushrooms.

After rain and cooler temperatures, they magically erupt from the forest floor in a myriad of shapes, sizes and colors. The constant part of the organism lives under the surface, root-like hyphae extracting nutrients from rotting wood. When conditions are right, the fungus pops up to release spores into the air, spreading its kind around the woods. They range from jelly-ish and transparent to hard and woody, from tiny little things on the ground to large conks up in the trees.

There is so much to be curious about and learn. I doubt that I will ever approach masterful knowledge of mushrooms. In the absence of expertise I have appreciation for how they delight my eyes and for their role in the complex forest ecosystem. If not for fungi and the slow work they do, we would be over our heads in dead tree stuff and other plant material.

danford

DAY TWO: August 10, 2013
Topic of the Day: Things I Wonder About

Spend the night at Hyas Lake with a group of volunteers working on the Pacific Crest Trail near the headwaters of the Cle Elum River. The sound of running water lulls me all night, a sound I would gladly sleep with for the rest of my life. Fifteen hundred feet above where I sleep, a stream is born from snow melting on the side of Mt. Daniel. It gathers itself, pulling more from side streams until it rushes and tumbles over precipices and boulders. It plunges down a steep gorge, spreading out across a rocky debris field before plunging again. The boulders are the size of Volkswagen Bugs, and even Ford F-350 pickups. The Crest Trail crosses here. Every year the crossing is a little different, depending on how avalanches and rock slides have rearranged it. The creek has washed away the approach on the north side and hikers have picked a narrow path down to the water. Up and over the rubble, across the braided stream to the other side. I choose to change into wading sandals rather than try to cross dry-footed in my boots. When I think about it, I have never been a nimble stream jumper, even when I was younger.

Halfway across, a young man points a camera up the gorge. He has the look of a through-hiker on his way to Canada, having hiked all the way from Mexico. He flashes me a radiant smile and asks what the crossing is like in high water. Not possible, I reply. People just have to wait till the water goes down. We chat for awhile. He has a British or Australian accent, and I can’t stop looking at how open and happy his face is. Here is someone who is truly paying attention to where he is. Washington is amazing, he tells me. The mountains are like the Sierras, except without the hype. It’s a reflective place. He’s just a week from the end of his hike and is taking this part slowly. I wish him well with all my heart as he continues north.

Brent and I filter our drinking water from this stream. Working in the mountains all summer, we have become connoisseurs of good water. If there is a choice between cold running oxygenated water or water from some shallow flaccid pond, I don’t even have to think about it. We have our favored spots to filter from. As I work the pump and watch the water level rise in my Camelbak, I wonder about dissolved mountains. These rocks that cleave apart once lay flat on the bottom of the ocean and were thrust up onto the North American plate. Pressed, twisted, lifted only to be chewed and spit out by glaciers that shaped Mt. Daniel. The last remnants of alpine glaciers are melting now. Am I drinking ancient ice? What minerals are dissolved in the water? How much better for my body is this water compared to town water?

I wonder.

I have always thought this steep gorge must be like the Himalayas. It’s so big and impressive that I can’t frame it in the camera. There’s no way to capture the sense of scale.

Later, coming back down the trail to cross again on the way back to camp, I hear the high buzzy trill of the American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus). John Muir called it the water ouzel, a more poetic name for this rather plain dark gray songbird of clear mountain streams. I kept watching to spot one winging swiftly up or down stream, and at last one landed on a rock with its feet in water. Dipper birds have a habit of bobbing up and down while standing, perhaps to confound the aquatic insects that they prey upon. Life is good for them now, but I wonder what they do when the snow is deep? In just a few weeks, the valley will turn white. The stream will be buried–this part of the crest can receive twelve to sixteen feet. What do the birds do? I wonder if they fly down the mountain and find a place in the river where they can stake out a patch of open water?

Wonder is a state of not knowing; of curiosity and mental querying; of astonishment and marveling. When I truly pay attention to where I am, I live in a state of wonder. A hundred different questions arise. Answers feel optional–it’s usually enough to just experience the wonder.

brushwhack

DAY THREE: September 11, 2013
Topic of the Day: Brushwhacking

The purpose of this trip is to cut the brush that encroaches on the trail, pushing hikers to the precarious edge of the tread. Our commute involves a shortcut straight up the hill from the valley floor. There is no trail, so we bushwhack. As bushwhacks go, it’s not bad because there aren’t many bushes. It’s possible to pick a route up through the silver fir forest to a pile of avalanche debris, cross the creek and then zigzag up the steep slope to the PCT. It took us a few tries to remember the way.

Once at the worksite, we pull our tools from the brush where we cached them the day before. Brushing is not glamorous, not like cutting big logs with a crosscut saw and heaving the chunks off the trail. Brushing is tedious and we don’t use power tools in the wilderness. The trail goes across slopes kept open by avalanches, and the vegetation grows from talus with a skim of organic material on top of it. There is no real soil. Salmonberry, huckleberry, slide alder, and mountain ash grow prodigiously with all the sun and rain. If not kept cut back, thickets obscure the tread. In some places you can’t see where you are putting your feet.

I’ve been doing trail work for so long that I no longer require glamour. It’s about the trail, not about me. I can get into my zone with a pair of loppers, mowing a swath from the top of the cutbank to the middle of the tread, stopping periodically to gather an armload of vegetation to fling off the trail. Then I scrape to re-establish tread. When I turn back to look at the completed work, there is a real sense of satisfaction. I can see what I have accomplished, and what my colleagues have done. I have cut brush here before, and I know it grows back. But for a little while, the trail is clear. Passing backpackers thank us sincerely. It’s a group effort, righteous work.

Last time down the shortcut to pack up camp and head out the Deception Pass trail. It’s not until today that I realize it was September 11th. Hm. Glad I missed the hype. Oddly enough, it was the Deception Pass trail that the trail crew was trying to reach on that day in 2001. There was a sense of just needing to get out to the wilderness where things would still be “normal” in a world that had otherwise started falling apart. We were called back to help with firefighting, but got to Hyas Lake a few days later. I remember how quiet and solemn we were, and how a sense of sanctuary wrapped around us in the brilliant mountains where water ran free and no planes flew over for days.

Home now, to reflect on the season which is somewhere between summer and fall. The days have gotten warm again. I hear the rushing sound of another field season constricting and closing. It’s not over yet, but it’s turning, turning.

Ranger Diary: The Lemah Trip

DAY ONE: August 5, 2013
Topic of the Day: Return to the Burn

Fireweed in the Lemah burn
Fireweed in the Lemah burn

Recently I photocopied a small map of the Cle Elum Ranger District section of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and drew the shapes of large fires from the last twenty years on it using a chunky red colored pencil. There were four red splotches: Lemah-Escondido (1000 acres, 1994); Polallie Ridge (900 acres, 2006); Lemah (800 acres, 2009); and Trail Creek (200 acres, 2012). Interesting to look at the big picture in this way as fire has been allowed to return to the wilderness as a natural process. It’s like puzzle pieces falling into place.

I feel fortunate to have been in the field observing each of these fires as they came to life, grew, decreased and finally went out. Each one was unique, occurring at their own point in space and time. The aftermath is what I find endlessly fascinating. Trail work has taken me back to these places so my colleagues and I get to witness what happens to an ecosystem after a disturbance.

The Lemah fire in 2009 started in late July and crept around on the forest floor for a month. We confined it to one side of the Pacific Crest Trail and kept an eye on it. The weather shifted significantly in late August as the fire moved to a more southerly aspect and climbed up into the old growth hemlocks. One afternoon it consumed four hundred acres in a swirling billow of smoke and roaring flames. For a few days there was excitement and general amazement. Then the fall rains came to subdue it. The fire festered and smoked until winter snows buried it.

It is a peaceful place again, the deep forest now opened to sunlight. Bark sloughs off the dead trees in curled sheaths, and naked saplings bend over the trail. Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) is a pioneer plant. Its fluffy seeds land on the charred soil and take root, pushing up tall spires that sway over hikers’ heads. The flowers open in late July and early August, a prodigious flush of hot pink. The afternoon sun casts long shadows through the spikes of snags and flowers. It is a hummingbird haven. Small birds rocket through the air with zinging wings and squeaky chirps. Plenty of nectar for all! Rufous and calliope hummingbirds share this space, defending their tiny territories to raise their young. They apparently fear nothing, and zip up to a human, hovering until they figure out what this lumbering creature is. Not food, not a threat. Then they zip off again.

Fireweed colored the industrial-scale clearcuts of my childhood landscape. Watching the pink appear reminded me that the freewheeling days of summer were numbered. Before long, Mom would be bundling us in the car for the trip to town for new school shoes and tablets and pencils. Fireweed is a bittersweet flower–still summer, but a reminder of impending change.

DAY TWO: August 6, 2013
Topic of the Day: Cascades

waterfall

After a long commute through the burn, we arrive at the work site. All day we labor next to the roar of a waterfall. It’s Delate Creek, spilling over the lip of rock that holds Spectacle Lake. It thunders down, and we holler at each other to be heard. When drinking water containers are drained, we walk across the bridge to a side stream to filter more. The water-filled air is like cool breath, blessed relief on this hot day. I think to myself: this is one reason why these mountains are called the Cascades.

DAY THREE: August 7, 2013
Topic of the Day: Some Unkind Thoughts About Hemlock

chophemlock

A project log is one you walk up to and know you are going to be at that spot for awhile. It will take hours to clear from the trail. Some of the more infamous ones have names. “Remember the one that fell on the puncheon at Deep Lake?” someone will ask. Oh yeah. We remember. I’ve written about The Ogre. This week we dealt with Slabby.

Slabby fell during the winter of 2010-2011, same as The Ogre. We are only now getting around to cleaning it off the PCT. Slabby was a big western hemlock hollowed out by rot. Only the outer four inches or so was sound wood. The structure of the tree could no longer stand the strain of standing vertically, so it twisted off the stump and fell to the ground, shattering into long pieces. These shards completely blocked the trail, forcing hikers of go up and around, picking their way through the wreckage. Last year Pam and Sam and I came through to log out, but didn’t have time to cut through Slabby.

Now it was time to get the job done. I had tried single bucking some of the chunks, but the saw bound and pinched in the cuts after I got partway through. I would have to chop. While waiting for Jon to bring up the double bit axe, I chopped with the smaller single bit. “I hate hemlock,” I pronounced after the first swing.

Then realized that’s not really true. I do not hate hemlock. As a tree, it is a fine one. Western hemlock grows in warm moist environments at lower elevations. It thrives in the shade of other trees and can grow to great size. The wood is tight-grained and sound when it has not been compromised by fungal rot. What I dislike is chopping and sawing through hemlock when it crosses the trail. I don’t hate it, but recognize that I am in for a prolonged exercise and patience is required. Long ago the trail crew renamed it “hemrock” for its hardness. I have heard my brother, a logger, refer to it is “scumlock”.

Hemlock is hard wood. It will not break. You have to chop or saw through every last inch. Hemlock cuts you no slack. You’re in for it, so go ahead and complain as you swing and hit again and again.

When you finally sever the chunk, you have earned that short burst of satisfaction that comes before turning to the next slab that needs to be removed. There was a sense of gratification, pride even, when we finally got Slabby off the trail, including the the long stringy pieces of rotten wood.

DAY FOUR: August 8, 2013
Topic of the Day: Drought

chimney

It was spooky. A trip to Lemah Meadow without being rained on or being eaten alive by bugs? I mentioned this to Jon, and he agreed that it was probably a first in trail crew history. Sure, the meadow was wet with dew in the mornings, and there were moments with the mosquitoes and flies. But we easily recalled other trips filled with far more misfortune than this one. The time we never took off our headnets except to shovel in dinner. The time mice got into the foodboxes. The time mice launched themselves at Jon’s tent and slithered down the nylon walls with their little claws scraping all the way down. The numerous wet pack-outs.

I made time to walk around the meadow, noticing the encroaching trees. The interesting bog plants. The fire-scarred cedar snags down at one end. The magnificent view of Chimney Rock and Summit Chief. That glacier up there is melting just as sure as the meadow is filling in with trees.

Changes.

Hiking out, I noticed that much of the some of the vegetation around Pete Lake appeared much more parched than it had three days earlier when we walked in.

drought

Thimbleberries love damp lowlands, yet here they are giving up where the sun has been beating on them strongly. The soft green leaves turn brown and papery, curling at the edges. The trail is pounded to dust by hundreds of feet. The woods are dry, even on the Cascade crest. This area has been traditionally thought of as wet and green. The asbestos forest, unable to burn. Yet I know from my map of wilderness fires that it does burn when conditions are right.

When I get to the truck, my uniform shirt is completely soaked with sweat. I’ve been drinking water all day, yet there is an unrelenting drought in my throat.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Now I have been home for over twenty-four hours, rehydrating and doing laundry. In the afternoons cumulus clouds pile up over the mountains and the sky flashes and rumbles after dark. Rain pelts down out of thunderheads, watering my garden. Tomorrow I go look for fires.

Ranger Diary: Hither and Yon

DAY ONE: July 19, 2013
Topic of the Day: Catching Up

Office day. Email, paperwork, phone calls. And most importantly, toilets. The third element of Leave No Trace outdoor ethics is “Dispose of Waste Properly”. In heavily-used backcountry camping areas, we provide pit toilets to concentrate human waste in discreet areas. In the Alpine Lakes, Wallowa style toilets (see link) are favored, and we can make these ourselves out of cedar lumber. They are packed in and then maintained. When the pits fill up, they have to be moved. A nasty job, but consider the alternative: I’d rather move a toilet than bury hundreds of piles of poop & TP left on the ground. Fortunately, I have help this summer from an Earthcorps (part of Americorps) crew. This group of six young people is spending a week at Pete and Spectacle Lakes to rehab campsites, move and repair toilets, and give a little TLC to these well-loved areas. To prepare for their work, I’ve finished constructing a whole new toilet to go to Spectacle Lake (6 miles from Pete, these folks are heroes) fabricated wooden parts to fix the Pete toilets, gathered tools and hardware. I want them to have a good experience so I stay an hour late to get everything lined up.

DAY TWO: July 20, 2013
Topic of the Day: Pacific Silver Fir

Pam and I backpack to Hyas Lake after making the very tedious hour and a half drive up the Fish Lake road. This ride is the most glaring local example of crumbling infrastructure in the National Forest. Unmaintained for years, the potholes are numerous and deep enough to swallow small cars. Still, there are 22 vehicles parked at the Deception Pass trailhead, and more arriving.

We’ve carried in tools to clear logs from the trail. The first log is a doozy, right next to camp. A Pacific Silver Fir (Abies amabilis) has tipped over, with a big rootwad looming near the trail. Hikers have pounded in a path going up and around, since it is too big to climb over with a full backpack. We clear the area where we will cut the log, and chop away some of the bark. Then it’s time to saw.

silverfir

Pam’s on one side of the log and I’m on the other. She extends the handle of Polallie, a five foot Atkins falling saw that we use for bucking. It’s one of our favorites. The handle fits my gloved hand, and we pull gently back and forth until the teeth have established a groove. We’re making a compound cut, and angle, so that the chunk will roll out easily. Back and forth–I’ve missed crosscut sawing. Sawdust dribbles out of the kerf, and we notice that the cut is opening. As we release tension, the log is moving upward with loud cracks. This is good. It means that gravity is working for us and the saw will just keep going down. We won’t have to underbuck, which is a the more difficult technique of cutting upward from the bottom.

It’s really hot. Sweat rolls into the creases of my eyes. We take frequent breaks to stand in the shade and sip water.

Silver fir dominates the middle elevations of the forested Cascade slopes on both sides of the mountains. It belongs to the family of balsam firs, the true firs (as opposed to Douglas-fir, which is not an Abies). Silver fir is a Northwest specialist, occurring as far north as southern British Columbia and extending as far south as Crater Lake in Oregon. It extends down the spine of the Cascades like the stripe on a skunk’s back. Rarely found above 5000 feet in elevation, it doesn’t seem to be as frost-tolerant as mountain hemlock. Like all firs, silver fir is tall and graceful with a pleasing symmetry to the crown. The branches extend horizontally in regular whorls. The glossy green needles are flattish with blunt ends evenly spaced on both sides of the twig. A staggered row of needles lies on top of this, covering the top of the twig. The needles are silvery underneath. The bark of young trees is smooth and whitish, but the older trees develop gray scaly bark. Our big log is old and scaly.

As a sawyer, what I notice most about silver fir (and all true firs) is the pitch. Pitch is not the same thing as tree sap. Sap is in phloem, the layer of living tissue under the bark that transports the sugars created by photosynthesis. Pitch, or resin, is a substance made by trees and stored in cells under the bark. If the tree is injured, it exudes pitch to scab over the wound. Pitch is sticky. Silver fir pitch is the stickiest. It collects on my gloves, the saw handle, my uniform shirt.

Our first cut finishes with a drop to the ground. Hikers come along and see what we are doing, remark that we have our work cut out for us (if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this, I could retire). We try not to roll our eyes. The second cut goes much the same as the first, without so much cracking. After two hours, we have used pry poles to move the chunk out of the trail.

innerfir

Examinining the end of the cut log, I observe the regular growth rings, the knots where branches grew, the cracks where the log broke inside as we cut it. It smells good.

DAY THREE: July 21, 2013
Topic of the Day: Seek Shade

We have heard stories of aggressive mountain goats at Tuck Lake. I want to go see for myself. We continue up the Deception Pass Trail with the saw, hoping that there will be time to hike into Tuck after we finish the logout. It’s a spectacular subalpine lake basin of rock and water. I’m thinking that it’s not so much of a goat problem as it is a people problem. After all, the goats live there and people just visit. Goats are curious, and very interested in salty human urine. Not surprisingly, there are encounters and occasional conflicts.

But there are more silver firs. We spend a long time bucking from the top, chopping, and underbucking. Again, we are in the hot sun. There are flies and mosquitoes. Our water bottles are stashed in a tiny patch of melting snow, and we refill them from a nearby trickle. The weather forecast calls for 96 degrees in the valleys, 90 degrees in the mountains, and low relative humidities. We are right on the Cascade crest. I can believe that it’s 90 degrees. The direct sunlight feels very bright.

We meet hikers in shorts and tank tops. One man asks how we can stand to work in long pants and long sleeves. He starts jumping around when the bugs bite his legs, and I wonder how folks can stand to hike in shorts.

We cut four logs before topping out at Deception Pass and the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s two o’clock and we won’t have time to go to Tuck Lake. It will have to be another day. We hike back to the trailhead with our full packs and tools. I feel wilted and parched, wanting to hide in the shade of the deep forest.

hyas1

I want to squinch my eyes almost shut and run through the sunny patches. The valley is filled with the sound of waterfalls as snow melts in the heat.

When I get home, I scrub the silver fir pitch out of my shirt using Citrasolv and Fels-Naptha soap. The wet fabric dries almost instantly.

DAY FOUR: July 22, 2013
Topic of the Day: Dust

We meet the Earthcorps crew and hike to Pete Lake. Wind whips the water and stirs the silt off the bottom of the lake. The Chimney Glacier has been melting and Lemah Creek deposits the finely-ground rock in Pete Lake. The water level seems low, and it will keep dropping. The crew admires the view of Lemah Peaks, still holding onto some snow. The leaders and I scout the work while the crew sets up their camp.

I’m feeling the effects of the heat and am ready to go. The trail is beaten into dust by horse hooves and many many boots. This transformation always startles me. It wasn’t too long ago that the trail was mucky.

Pam and I talk about food on the way out. She’s got leftovers at home for supper, and I’m craving Thai peanut sauce. Just picked the first garden zucchini…

deceptiontrail

Table Mountain Mosaic

Jon described it as a gyre; a circling spiral. And that was exactly how we saw the birds, sweeping up and over the dry rocky meadow. Like a flock of sandpipers at the beach, they flew in perfect synchronicity and landed, settling on the ground to forage for grass seeds. As one they rose up again, circling. Everything halted as we watched in wonderment.

 

Earlier in the day I had seen one of these birds close up. It was hopping around on rocks as I hiked to the trail of the day. Spotting the movement, I stopped. As it fluttered up, pink flashed under the wings, and I could see that the head was gray. Could it be a Gray-crowned rosy finch (Leucosticte tephrocotis)? I eased the camera out of my pocket and snapped some photos to identify later. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds says that they nest in alpine or Arctic habitats.These could be migrants coming to winter range, or they could be Cascade birds taking advantage of a local food source. Either way, it was the first time I haveĀ  seen them.

The trail crew continues to prepare trails in the burned area for winter. Priority is given to those trails where the fire burned hottest. We have no idea what we will find, so although most of us have worked on these trails in past seasons, it’s all new. Scorched earth. Vistas opened up, topography exposed that has always been hidden by the cover of vegetation. The wind sounds different in trees that have no needles or boughs. Thinner and more lonesome. Each time I come to a place to dig a drainage dip, I stop and look up. Turn completely around to survey every tree. Some are burned through and lean precariously into their neighbors. I also check the roots, sometimes pushing against a blackened trunk to see if it moves. I want to know everything is going to stay put while I have my head down, digging.

Today I found my eyes drawn toward the bases of the trees, and the shapes of roots as they disappear into the ground. This strikes me as sculptural and elegant, as well as functional. Conifers are shallow-rooted, spreading laterally to hold on and give support to the flexible tall trees. The roots are like fingers gripping the earth, and they also intertwine underground. Trees help support each other. While I feel sorrow that this fire was so large and destructive, I am also fascinated to observe how much has been made visible. The energy of the fire has simplified the landscape.

I think what I most want to be reassured about is that the place is not dead. That life is not erased forever. Fire brought a great change, giving the appearance of devastation. But as we make our way through the woods, we see that others have been there before us. Elk and deer tracks are everywhere. Coyotes and bobcats are using the trails. Yesterday we found black bear tracks in the mushy wet ash (the photo is of a front paw, with my work glove for scale). And today we found bear tracks in a different place. Gray jays appear when we stop for a break. Ravens cruise overhead. Pikas call from their hidey-holes in the talus slopes. This afternoon I stopped in a grove of big old larches that were untouched by flames. Looked up into their stiff branches covered with golden needles and felt profound gratitude. They bear cones with tiny seeds–promise of the next generation.

There is death and change on Table Mountain. At times, it’s hard to take it all in. The implications, what this means for next year. How many logs there are to cut out–we’ve been climbing over fallen trees, our clothes and faces splotched with black by the end of the day. No cutting till next summer, when more trees have fallen. Even now, decay is creeping, breaking down the dead organic material. Nothing is wasted. When the winter snow melts, there will be grasses and wildflowers in the sun. There used to be a lot more shade. Tree seedlings like sunlight and space around them, so expect to see a flush of lodgepole pine, Douglas-fir, western larch. And the places that didn’t burn will continue as they have. It’s called a mosaic, the complex pattern of burned and unburned, mature forest and young stands.

I have the privilege of watching this process, and learning.

Black Forest

The smoke has drifted away, and there is acceptance that this place has changed. There’s been time to get used to the idea. Everyone I work with has had to grieve for Table Mountain in their own way. The memories are ours to keep, and now it’s time to explore the new reality.

The trail crew went to the Wilson Stock Driveway today. We are part of the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) effort after the Table Mountain fire. Our task is to create appropriate drainage structures to slow erosion on trails where the fire burned with great intensity. Without living trees to hold water, the damaged soil is more exposed to snow and rain and likely to erode. Running water is no friend to trail tread in the best of circumstances. Burned areas are fragile, and we want to keep excess sediment out of streams.

So we dig. The tracks of recent rain show us the right location to dig angled ditches to divert water away. It takes a practiced eye to see this, and deft handling of the digging tool. Table Mountain is capped with basalt, so there are plenty of angular rocks to scoop out. We quickly figured out that rock or wood check dams could also help slow running water. We moved slowly, often looking up into the naked ghost trees. It’s still a treacherous place, even though the fire is out. Trees burned through at the base or higher up. Many have fallen, and many are weakened. There’s no reason to spend time under leaners hung in dead branches.

The fire burned hot here. I remember standing in Red Top Lookout almost two months ago, watching the plumes of black smoke rise into the sky. The billows increased all afternoon. I knew that if the firefighters didn’t catch it soon, they weren’t going to catch it at all. The forest on Table Mountain was high elevation subalpine fir and lodgepole pine. Fire behavior in this forest type is usually intense. The firs have branches that go all the way to the ground, and their crowns are full of black lichens. All it takes is a tiny windblown ember to turn the tree into a torch. That torch throws off more embers, and the fire moves through the tree canopy. All this fire sweeps life before it like a broom, clearing the way for a new stand of trees.

There were lodgepole pine cones on the ground. Some of them had opened and their small seeds littered the trail. I stopped to examine these and found every seed had been eaten out of the papery wings that disperse the seeds. The air was filled with the sound of nuthatches and chickadees foraging, and flocks of finches winging through the tree trunks. A black and white woodpecker (hairy?) flaked away singed bark. I heard squirrels in the distance. Surely there would also be mice and other little rodents scurrying around looking for something to eat. I heard ravens overhead. Deer, elk, and coyote tracks trailed through the soggy ash.

All is not lost. Plants will come back. In the meadows, fire had moved quickly though the dried grass and green was already showing from some of the root crowns. Lupine seed pods were pasted to the soil by hard rain, and desert parsley seeds were scattered. Wild onion bulbs were exposed by our digging. Yellow aspen leaves stuck to the mud, blown by an upcanyon breeze. A few golden larches flared against the black, remnant patches of forest that didn’t burn. From these living tree islands, new forest will come.

It looks like destruction. I loved Table Mountain the way it was, with its rolling trails winding from forest to meadow and forest again, the big basalt talus slopes, the variety of terrain. It was a great place to find wildflowers not seen anywhere else in the area. By burning away the vegetation, the fire also revealed that we have not been very good stewards of this place. I picked up some scorched beer cans but walked by broken glass bottles. Motorcycle tracks left the trail to loop through dry meadows. Tires had dug trenches. People made their own roads to hunting camps and to illegally cut firewood. The land belongs to the public, but we have not taught them to care for it. We turn a blind eye, demoralized by shrinking budgets and lack of will to stand for a greater good. We are all culpable. In the wake of superstorm Sandy, we wonder about global climate change. Why are there so many natural disasters? Why did this fire burn so hot, get so big? We are looking explanations, someone to blame, something to cling to in the midst of all this uncertainty.

I don’t know much, except to put one foot in front of the other and dig to make water go off the trail. I know I’m upright and breathing and grateful. It’s not raining, and I’m with good people. I’ll go home, take off my muddy boots, make a hot supper and go to bed. And tomorrow the sun will come up and I’ll go out there to dig some more.

The Waptus Trip

Back from a week at Waptus Lake…38 miles covered on foot in five days. Several miles of the Pacific Crest Trail were cleared, as well as associated trails. It’s always a highlight of the trail crew season, a sort of pilgrimage. This year the weather was warm and clear, but not too warm. Nights cooled enough for pleasant sleeping under the stars.

Pam, Sam and I came across this beauty between Waptus and Deep Lake. We have a term for logs like this: “Project Log”. A Project Log means that we take our packs off and plan to stay awhile. It means that we walk up and down, looking for a good place to cut it, and analyze the bind. Where is a safe place to stand? In this case, there were ferns and brush on top of angular rocks in the avalanche chute. Where will we move the chunk so that it ends up off the trail? If it’s not safe to cut, how many pounds of explosives will be needed to blast it? (Quick calculation = 75 pounds, plus time and expense to bring the stuff in…not worth it.) I was proud of my crew when they announced that they were not afraid, and we decided to go for it.

The prep and first cut took an hour. Our five foot crosscut saw was sharp, and we paced ourselves. Five wedges were pounded in to keep the kerf open. The last few inches were single-bucked since it wasn’t safe for a sawyer to stand on the downhill side when the big tree started cracking as the weight shifted. We took turns, and it finally dropped with a thud and rolled into the trail. High fives all around. After lunch, we started the second cut. A party of six backpackers and a springer spaniel came down the trail. We had met them the day before–a couple of dads and four boys of various ages. They were excited to see what we were doing, so we let them pull on the saw and sweat in the sun. They asked a million questions about our work and what it’s like. We talked about swimming in the lake, and how nice some watermelon would be right about now. When they finished struggling with the saw, we took over with smooth strokes and again finished with a single buck. The log released, and we all heaved and slid it off the trail on a strategically placed runner. Lots of whooping as it crashed down. I measured across the cut diameter and read 37 inches on the tape. Our new friends went on their way, and we climbed up to cut more logs.

At the end of each work day, we converged on our base camp near Spinola Creek. Tools were leaned against a tree, packs dropped, boots and socks removed. Stories from the day were told. We all have our ways of cleaning up. Mine is to get a towel and clean dry camp clothes, and wander off to a private place along the creek. If a person is going to experience cold mountain water, it’s best to do it before the sun gets too low and the temperature drops. Peeling off the sweaty clothes is a high point of the day. Splashing in the water, noticing the new bruises, scratches, and streaks of pitch. Drying off to sit on a rock, soft air around skin…this is my time. Wordless time. Alone, I merge with the rush of the water, the quality of light, the buzzing calls of flycatchers in the tree canopy. My body is finally at rest and it feels good. After a time, I pull on loose dry clothes and make my way back to camp to see about supper.

I feel lucky to have camped with congenial companions over the years. A trail crew works together and lives together. It’s a fairly intimate situation. You end up learning a lot about the person on the other end of the crosscut saw because you can feel them–the weight of their pull, their strength, whether they are tired or hurting or feeling energetic. The best saw partners are exquisitely sensitive to each other and can speak just a few words to make adjustments. Verbal communication is necessary. Good partners fall into an easy rhythm, and when it’s going well it’s a beautiful thing. When you’re in the back country, you watch out for each other. A small injury or heat exhaustion can have serious ramifications when you are far from a road and town. What happens to one person can affect us all. We end up knowing more about each other than we might choose, but that can teach compassion and tolerance. A little kindness and understanding go a long way.

We also have fun together. After the hard work, mosquitoes and other tribulations, camp is the place for some goofiness. Delicious food items are pulled from the pack boxes to share. Conversations veer off on tangents. Somebody starts laughing and soon we are all doubled over with tears streaming from our eyes. The moon rises over Polallie Ridge, and the nighthawks are cruising over camp on pointed wings. They are insect eaters, and I for one am grateful.

Spinola Creek murmurs a lullaby all night. Sleep is deep. I wish I slept in camp every night, hearing the water running. Once I woke to hear tiny gnawing sounds outside the tent, but was too tired to feel concern. The moon flooded the ground with silver light and long shadows of lodgepole pines.

Somehow the days passed. Every day we left camp with tools and a plan. Our commutes were on foot. I always like the hiking time. My body walks while I open my senses. I’ve been on these trails many times, but I always notice something new. This time I was delighted by the sound of waves. In the Cascades, the sound of running water is nearly always present. But walking along the shore of Waptus Lake, the water lap-slaps in rhythmic waves as wind moves through the big glacial valley.

One morning I noticed this delicate feather on a vanilla leaf. It’s the height of summer, with flowers blooming everywhere. Yet this feather is a reminder that the neotropical birds have raised broods of young, and most of them have fledged. Perhaps some of the adults are moulting now, shedding old feathers so that new ones can grow in time for migration.

Spending time at Waptus always makes me think of change. All the changes I’ve seen in the twenty-odd years I’ve been going there: trees falling, creeks moving, bridges washing away, spruce budworm outbreaks, wildfires. Changes in the crew line-up, in the packstring, in the locals who hang out at the lake. I am aware of time passing, and it does not seem to be in my favor. I don’t like to think of that. But what we resist persists, so I turn to face the changes. Why, I wonder, does it seem that nature changes so gracefully and we humans have such a hard time with it? What is it that makes us cling to notions of stability? A need for comfort and security? A desire to avoid the knowledge that we too change and someday will die?

The wondering keeps my mind busy while my feet are walking. Life, death, one big round and round. I’ll never get it all figured out and that’s fine. I’m here to clear trails and bear witness to change and find joy in the little things. Right now the twinflower (Linnea borealis) is blooming in the forest, lightly scenting the air with a faint honeysuckle sweetness. What could be more pink and cute, yet tough and thriving? It grows all around this latitude, in Canada and Sweden, Alaska and probably Siberia. Think of all these flowers, blooming right now and trailing between the roots of conifers…

Well. Enough of this rambling. Re-entered the civilized world yesterday evening. Time for rest, rehydration, laundry. Time to prepare for the next wilderness trip.

Filing System and Field Testing

Pixie’s chain was sharp when we hit the trail this morning (my crew is weird–we name our chainsaws). I felt gleeful when I powered the saw into the first green log of the day and big chips spewed out the back. But a couple logs later, the inevitable happened. There was a large-ish rotten Douglas-fir squatting right down on the ground. I couldn’t see very well, so wasn’t sure when I was going to complete the cut. When I noticed a couple of sparks, I knew I had gone too far. We rolled the log away and I saw the groove in the dirt made by the chain. Ooh, that’s bad. It’s best to keep the whirling chain away from dirt and rocks, but sometimes it can’t be helped.

I rooted around in my pack for the saw kit, and pulled out the file. A rotten log next to the trail would do for a workbench, and I knelt down in front of it. Field sharpening is a skill at which I do not excel, so it was time for practice. In the shop, the saw is held by a vise so I can stand in a comfortable position. It’s a lot easier. The file is a 3/16ths inch round file for sharpening saw chain. I use a file guide to keep a consistent angle on each tooth. All the teeth on one side are filed, and then the saw is flipped so I can file the other side of the chain. While I do this task, I hold more than one focus. The front of my brain, my eyes, and hands are paying attention to the angle of the file, and counting the strokes. But my ears are tuned to the sounds in the woods: noisy river, varied thrushes, aircraft up in the clouds. My belly is digesting lunch, my knees and ankles are feeling the weight of supporting me as I lean over my work. Sweat dries on my back now that I am not hiking. Tooth by tooth, minute metal filings dust the sharp edges.

When I start cutting the next log, I know I haven’t done as well as I would have liked. But it’s the last log–the trail is buried under snowbanks that persist under the trees. We’ll have to come back when they melt. I’ll have a chance to file that chain in the shop before Pixie goes out again.

I’m field-testing a new work pack. I’ve written before about the challenges of finding gear that works for trail crew. My back and shoulders insist that I make changes. After online research, I settled on a Deuter Futura Vario Pro, a small overnight pack. The two features I most want in a work pack are adequate suspension, and side pockets. This one is rated to carry 40 pounds, and is designed to distribute the weight away from the shoulders. When I put the saw over my shoulder, the top of the pack supports it nicely. Yes! I’m happy. The side pockets are not perfect–getting my hand held radio out is something of a wrestling match. But at least I can get to it. Deuter packs are German, so I have hopes for sensible engineering and durability. Oh, and please note the yellow fabric flower. It’s a lily. It’s a women’s pack, which I approve of because it may fit my anatomy more comfortably. The flower is a concession to my innate femininity, even though I am out in the woods wallowing in dirt and getting sawdust in my bra. After my tirade last summer about a new personal backpack named “Trollhetta Lady”, I have nothing more to say about gear manufacturers marketing to women (this blog, August 2011). But I’m leaving that dang flower on my work pack till it’s soaked with bar oil and rots away from pure filth and abrasion. I will not be mistaken for a boy!

Unsettled weather all day. Perfect for working, really. Not too hot. Not windy. A few light rain showers, and some sun breaks. Walking along, I notice a couple of calypso orchids. Another name for them is fairy slippers, and their bright pink jumps off the forest floor. The leaves are just emerging on the vine maples and huckleberries–the understory still seems open. More twigs and branches than foliage. Soon it will be different. The woods are changing all the time, and I amazed at my own amazement. This cycle is familiar, yet I never tire of it. How good it is to be out there doing good work!