Good Day To Be A Raven

Here’s Jon lopping brush on the Easton Ridge trail. As I’ve noted before, trails that go through clearcuts offer years of maintenance opportunities. The single stem of wild cherry or hazel that we cut this year responds by sending out seven sprouts next year, much like the mythical Hydra. Clearcuts allow ample sun and water to reach these fast-growing plants. There will be brush to cut long after Jon and I have retired and returned to the soil ourselves. Kind of a comforting thought, so we approach the work with a Zen-like attention. The work is not futile, but it is impermanent.

The day was silver. Lake Easton and Lake Kachess reflected the rain clouds back toward the sky, and the forest slopes absorbed the light. Squalls came down the valleys on gusts of wind, enveloping us in dampness. Is this rain, snow, or hail? A fine November day, Jon observed. Above us, along the ridge, ravens played all day. Their croaks and squawks were calls and laughter to each other. They sailed, wings tucked, tails constantly adjusting to the unpredictable wind. Across the valley, two creamy-colored mountain goats browsed a steep slope. I wondered what they were finding to eat. Must have been succulent, because they were intent.

All day we heard the reports coming over the radio from the south. Bridge gone, road caving in, can’t get past the flood waters. Big mess. When our work was finished, we hiked down, hoping that the bridge we’d crossed in the morning was still there in the afternoon. It was. Shaking from the thunder of high water, and slick from spray, it was still there and we crossed over.

Season Thirty-one

My thirty-first Forest Service season started today, after being laid off during the month of April. There was the obligatory meeting, with setting of priorities by the boss. There are far fewer trail crew members this season, and our mission is to open trails. As soon as the snow melts, we are out there cutting the trees and logs that came down over the winter making the trails safe and passable for the eagerly recreating public.

I wandered out to the trails locker to renew my acquaintance with Pixie (yes there is a story behind this name, and no I’m not going to tell it at the moment). My crew has a tradition of naming saws, both the motorized ones and the muscle-powered ones. Over the years the names have been local ridges and lakes (Polallie, Spectacle, Waptus) or macho to confer the power needed to chew through firs and hemlocks (Dirk, Devil-saw). I named Pixie for one of my alter-egos, a whimsical woodsy character. For years, I had a hypothesis that guys would avoid pink girly stuff, so the best way to keep them from trashing my favorite tools and gear would be to feminize things. Would a real man strap on “orchid”-colored snowshoes, or grab a chainsaw with pink sparkly letters? The answer is Yes; the girly stuff doesn’t even slow them down. Or a chainsaw just can’t be made frilly enough. Anyway, my hypothesis has been thoroughly disproved.

Pixie is a lot like me–not the latest model but entirely adequate. Broken in but with lots of life left, especially with thoughtful maintenance. Pixie’s a Stihl MS360, a descendant of the classic 036 models I learned on in the 1990s. It (chainsaws are gender-neutral as far as I can tell) is not burdened with the goofy air filters they put on new-fangled saws, and you can still get to the spark plug without taking the whole housing apart. There is a certain clanking to an idling 360 that says “happy saw” to me. Pixie makes that clank.

Today I cleared space on the messy workbench, found my saw tools, and went to work. The conscientious sawyer knows her saw. Pixie got cleaned. I inspected the muffler and checked the spark arrester. Looked at the spark plug, checked the throttle for sticking, tested the chain brake. Cleaned and inspected the bar, and installed a brand new chain. Even used some citrus solvent to rub off the worst of the old pitch and gunk. Then it was time to start, run, and cut. Pixie fired right up. The chain and idle are adjusted just the way I like them. And the new chain is sharp enough to throw big chips. I will have to keep an eye on it, since it’s new, and be mindful of the tension as it heats up and breaks in.

I’ve never considered myself the least bit mechanical, but working on chainsaws has altered this idea a little bit. It’s a very basic machine (small engine whirls sharp chain around really fast, making it possible to saw through wood) and I am highly motivated to do my work efficiently. Nothing like packing a twenty pound saw up a steep hill only to find that it won’t start. Repairs are best handled on a workbench with plenty of tools available and a fire in the woodstove, rather than cursing while you kneel on the ground five miles from the truck in the rain.

Jon and I mixed fresh saw fuel today. Tomorrow we cut logs!

Found

The trail crew had a safety meeting this morning, a weekly event filled with random tangents, puns, giggles, and safety tidbits reduced to pithy one-liners. Of course the meeting is documented on a form, and the note taker is always challenged to make sense of what is being discussed. One of the lines to be filled out is “Crew’s Job”. Today we decided we were doing an Extreme Trail Makeover.

Tired Creek Trail #1317 is the object of our attention. It needs an extreme makeover, due to a problem called “tread creep”. Gravity is one thing we can count on in this uncertain world. As some trails are used, they slip downhill. Eventually the walking surface becomes narrow and difficult. Soil is worn away from hidden obstacles such as roots and rocks. The trail wavers up and down, rather than angling at a steady grade.

One of the jobs I have as leader is figuring out where the trail should be relocated. That’s why I was on my hands and knees out in front of where the crew was digging. I had a pair of loppers and a pruning saw, and was clearing a line for them to follow. I found all sorts of things. Way up in the brush, I found stems cut long ago. We used to cut brush with machetes in the early 1990s, and the hack marks are unmistakable. The machete phase has been over for a long time, and I am grateful. Swinging one is a lot of work, and the tool was a source of traumatic injuries as well as repetitive stress. Loppers and pruning saws are safer and more productive. I found lots of little mushrooms under the brush, and fragments of rotting wood. Layers of leaves and needles.

As I turned to toss an armload of cut pachistima down the hill, I saw this nest in one of the branches. It wasn’t used this year, but is so well-constructed that it survived at least one winter intact. There are sticks and grasses, tiny filaments of lichen, maybe even a few horsehairs from the trail. What a creation, made by the beak of a bird, to shelter naked helpless babies until they grow up enough to fledge. I can build a trail, but I wouldn’t know where or how to start making a cup for eggs without using my hands or tools.

We share the woods with some very talented neighbors. Ones who can fly, and sing a whole lot better than the trail crew.

Packstring

I showed up at the barn as daylight was arriving. Tim had caught and fed the animals, and was in the process of saddling them. He handed me a hoof pick, and I went around lifting hooves and scraping out the caked-in mud and manure. I found a few small stones and pried them out. We led each saddled animal into the trailer and tied them to the side. They knew what was up.

At the Pete Lake trailhead, we led them out and tied them to the side of the trailer. Maggie, Polly, Buck and Cisco had pads and lumber carriers attached to their Decker pack saddles. Stoney got a set of pannier boxes. This seemed like one of the most important steps of the whole process–loading each animal with about 100 pounds of lumber, making sure the loads were securely tied and properly balanced. Finally we were ready to go. I climbed up on Apollo’s back, adjusted my feet in the stirrups, took the reins in my left hand and Maggie’s lead rope in my right. Polly was tied behind her. My three were eager to get going. We followed Tim and his guys.

I’ve done enough trail riding that my body remembers how to do it. It’s not a passive activity. Attention must be paid to the animals, and the body has to shift weight. It’s not like walking under one’s own power. Apollo didn’t try any tricks on me–some crafty old horses will attempt to wipe a rider off against a tree or deliberately go under a low-hanging branch. Or they’ll dawdle, try to snatch a bite of brush as they pass, or nip at the animal in front of them. Apollo is a handsome paint horse and takes his business seriously. I gave him my apple core at lunchtime. He said, “For me? OK, I’ll eat that.”

The ride to Pete Lake was shady. Most of the leaves have come off the brush. Mosses are plump and velvety green after the fall rains. No one else was on the trail. A few juncos flitted and chirped. Hemlock needles fell in a quiet patter. There was the creak of leather and lumber, the clop and thud of hooves. We stopped for a break at the lake, and checked cinches and loads before heading up the Waptus Pass trail. I have memories of toiling up its steep switchbacks on hot days, rainy days, cold days. Today the horses were sweating instead of me. It didn’t seem fair.

Before long we found the mudhole. The animals didn’t care for the deep mud, and tried to lunge through it. No doubt that it needs a fix. We unloaded the lumber and hardware and left it stacked next to the cedar tree the trail crew fell for bridge stringers. The work will be done next season. It was midafternoon, and time to head back. Apollo and I led the others down the hill–he liked that. His ears went up and he was an alert lead horse. I could feel him sniffing the air, sensing his environment. Tim and I got off to walk down the steep part, to spare the animals and our knees.

The afternoon drained away. The temperature dropped, and clouds came over the Cascade crest. I reached behind the saddle to find the wool jacket I had tied there. Shrugged into it as I rode, savoring the warmth. The packstring was zombie hiking. This is what the trail crew calls a long walk after working all day. You’re tired, you fall silent, your mind empties, you just want to get back so you can stop walking. Tim had stopped his murmuring “Step up here, boys…..don’t be a dipshit, Buck….” There was a perceptible change in speed as Apollo recognized places on the trail indicating we were almost back to the trailer. We removed the pads, lumber carriers, and pannier boxes. Led everybody into the trailer and tied them up short for the ride back. It was getting dark, and rain spattered the windshield.

We ended the day where we had started it, in the barn. Animals were fed, unsaddled, checked over for hoof problems or sores. They all went out in the corral and we could hear them rolling on the ground to get the feel of the saddle off their backs.

As Tim said, it was a good day because nothing bad happened. Packing with horses and mules is always unpredictable, and so are the mountains. But we did well, and the string is ready to have their shoes removed so they can head to winter pasture in a couple weeks. Another season is winding down.

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.

Thirty Years

August 2010 marks my thirtieth season in the Forest Service. This photo was taken during my first season in 1980. I was hired for the Leavenworth Ranger District trail crew, after two previous summers in the Youth Conservation Corps and a summer in the Young Adult Conservation Corps. At the age of 20, I had already done some trail work and general construction. I was the only woman on this crew, which was pretty much the story of my work life for quite a few years. I didn’t care. I just wanted to be out there.

Here, Rod and I are weighing gear to be flown in by helicopter to Lake Augusta, in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. We spent a work week in September removing an old puncheon and installing turnpikes and culverts. It was glorious camping in the high country.

That was the first and last time I’ve ever gotten a helicopter ride to do trail work. There have been many miles hiked since then.

Stay tuned, and I will be posting more photos and memories of the past thirty years.

The DeRoux Trip

Warning sign, mostly to alert people to our bad smells, bad singing, and shrieks of laughter

As near as I can tell, the DeRoux Spur Trail was built around 1936 or 1937. That’s when the Forest Service laid out a route that followed a 10% grade up a steep sideslope, over a ridge, and down to the Middle Fork of the Teanaway River. Prior to this new construction, herders drove sheep straight up and over. From old photographs, I can tell that the country had all burned around the turn of the 20th century, so forage would have been plentiful.

During the past 70-something years, the trail has seen heavy traffic, mostly horses. The soils are unstable, always drifting down the slope with gravity. The trail has slid and slumped, growing narrower and more precarious. We have tried various fixes, from installing log cribbing to blasting rock from the backslope of switchbacks. What we have learned is that tread stabilization techniques are fairly successful. The trail needed a makeover.

We applied for a grant to do the work, and were given $30,000 to fix it up. We started last year, and have the rest of this field season to finish. This past week, we tackled the tread furthest from the road. Every morning we hiked the 2.5 miles from camp to the work site.

Installing rock cribbing and widening tread

Cribbing is a way of stabilizing the downhill side of a trail, where it tends to be soft and slumpy. We like to dig a shallow trench and place a single or double course of rocks. It’s also possible to use a log and secure it with wooden stakes pounded into the ground. You use whatever is easiest, but rocks last longer. The backslope on the uphill, or cutbank, side of the trail is excavated, and the dirt pulled over the cribbing to create a bench-like tread. Ideally tread should be about 24 inches wide.

It’s a process, and the crew has gotten pretty good at it. Cooperation is necessary, with some people gathering rocks, others digging the trench and placing the rocks, and finally everyone gets to excavate. As digging proceeds, the ground has surprises for us. Outcrops are revealed, and the pick-mattock specialist (Jon) bashes the crumbly serpentine rock to smithereens. Sometimes there are roots to be dug out and cut.

Yours truly putting the finishing touches on restored tread

It was hot and dusty. When our brains had baked enough in the sun, we crawled to the nearest shade to swill water. Then back to it. After the end of two days, we had completed 810 feet and felt the righteous satisfaction that comes from knowing we have made the trail a safer and more sustainable travel path for the recreating public and their livestock. And the view from the office wasn’t bad.

Headwaters of the Middle Fork Teanaway

The Waptus Trip, Part One

Waptus River

This week was much anticipated, as I joined the trail crew for their first camping trip of the season. Last year I didn’t go to Waptus Lake, so was really determined to get there this time.

After dropping crew members off at the Cathedral Pass trailhead, Jon and I headed up the Waptus River trail. The river is first visible (and audible) at about three miles. It tumbles through a carved canyon. Further upstream the valley opens and the river gets quieter. We put on mosquito nets for the last few miles, and crossed the horse ford.

Jon crossing the Waptus River

Rolling into camp is like coming home after a long day. It is home. Tom and Tiff had started to set up camp, and soon John and Ethan came in. We talked on the radio to Rick, Sam and Jared who were still making their way down Quick Creek. People splashed in Spinola Creek to wash off the dust and sweat, and dinner was started. Tents were set up. I made biscuits in a hot skillet and people ate them right out of the pan. There was laughter and sharing stories of the day. Dinner was devoured and the dishes washed. The sun set behind Summit Chief Mountain and the air cooled. No-see-ums came out, along with their mosquito buddies. Nighthawks flew over camp eating bugs. Hermit thrushes sang good night, and Spinola Creek murmured into a night that never got truly dark.

The next day was a day of rest for me, and the crew re-opened an old ford across Spade Creek. The Pacific Crest Trail bridge is washing out and is no longer safe for horses. They cut brush and logs, posted signs, scouted ahead. I had dinner underway when they returned, then went to visit the lake while the dishes were washed.

Sun setting behind Summit Chief

Wednesday I joined the crew on the PCT. We worked above Spinola Creek all day. Seems like there’s always a lot to do on this stretch–from logout to tread repair, and of course the inevitable brush.

PCT after brush cutting

The day was warm, and the patches of shade were welcome. We’ve all experienced heat exhaustion over the years. Temperatures in the low 80s are perfect for triggering it. It’s not so hot that working is unbearable, but it’s warm enough to sap your energy and create a hydration deficit. When we got to a place the crew calls “The Cleft”, we climbed up to filter water and take a break. Snowmelt trickles straight down a narrow gouge in the cliffs, and gathers in small pools. Close examination of the rocks revealed leaf impressions. Imagine–this place used to be a lake or coast where sediments gathered and deciduous trees dropped leaves. Tom said he would look in his geology books to find out how long ago.

Leaf impressions in slate

I went down ahead of the crew to have my time in the creek and get started on dinner. One of the perks of the job is “bathing” in mountain streams. There is nothing like finding a private spot to strip off the filthy work clothes and get cleaned up. Sticks and needles that have fallen down the shirt and stuck to sweaty skin are rinsed away. So is the brown dusty line above the socks. Bug bites and scrapes are soothed. It’s cold–you don’t want to stay in for long. It feels good to get out, towel off, and stand in the still warm air. That’s refreshing. Clean clothes, and back to camp.

Twilight lingers. Moon sets over Polallie Ridge. Crew sits around talking and laughing and slapping at bugs. People wander off to tents. I lie in mine, listening to nighthawks and hermit thrushes and the creek. Voices finally fade and sleep comes.

Waptus is the Yakama word for “wing feather”. It’s my word for wilderness home, adventure, camaraderie, memory.

Cumulus and lodgepole pines

Polallie Ridge

Larkspur (Delphinium burkei?)

Half day of trail work today. There have been lots of new challenges lately, so it felt comfortable and calming to go out and do something familiar. Something physical outdoors. I always thought Polallie Ridge was a gutbuster of a trail, relentlessly steep and upward. And I wouldn’t say that I am in very good condition right now. But there’s a difference, with my new chemically-adjusted heart. More ease in my chest, and the ability to set a pace and keep going. It helps to not be packing a chainsaw up the hill. As Senior Trail Analysts, Jon and I have chosen to eschew the weight and take the chance that we aren’t going to find a monster log on the trail. I carried the crew’s favorite five foot crosscut saw. We used it twice on smallish logs, bickering about underbucking like people who have sawed together for eons. Which we have.

It wasn’t raining today. The weather pattern for the past week or more has been wet. At times, deluges of biblical proportion. We enjoyed looking at all the flowers blooming (rain is good for wildflower displays). Polallie Ridge is alternately forested and open, which makes for pleasantly changing scenery as you go up and up and up.

Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

I love blue flowers, so it was wonderful to find the ultramarine blue larkspurs (I can get the genus, but my ability to distinguish species is often fuzzy) and the more purplish camas. Bees were pollinating the blooming huckleberry bushes, and I got a glimpse of a pair of tanagers.

Jon, with repaired tread

Yep. Good to get out. Good to feel my metabolism shifting to a more energetic state. Good to go to the woods with friends and follow the Ten Trail Commandments: Hike, Dig, Saw, Chop, etc.