08 July 2010

One Long-Ass Post, Comin' Up

There has been a great deal of uncertainty, but I will hypothetically be shipped up to the lookout Sunday or Monday!

We’ve been going along saying “Oh, someday summer will start, and the road will melt out, and hopefully it’ll be before August… {nervous giggle}…” On Thursday afternoon of last week, we got the word from Trails that my mules were scheduled for Wednesday through Friday of this week, come hell or high...snow, and if I didn’t get to the lookout then, well, the Fire crew would have to hump it on their backs or some similar plan, because the mules wouldn’t be available until the end of the month or August, afterward. So Tim and a few other people went out to clear, by hand, the Sheep Fucker Road. Luckily for them, the hot weather the previous weekend left them with only a mile or so to clear. By hand. They also got a hold of a snowmobile, to help bust up the drifts prior to shoveling. By hand. I then got my own chance to break up some of these drifts (by hand), when we got sent back up a few days later. The irony of shoveling a mile of snow off of a road to facilitate access to a fire lookout was not lost on us.

Tuesday rolled around, the eve of my departure, and word came down that the trail crew was now worried about the snowpack, and the effect it would have on the mules. I was told to set myself up as if the deal was going through, just in case. So, yesterday morning I got to work and learned that Trails had, in fact, bagged out, but were working on logging out an alternate route, to be ready 3 to 5 days from now. A  lot of stress, anticipation and a 10-hour preparational day, not to mention all the work on the S.F. Road, only to be put back into a holding pattern. Ah, well. I instead spent yesterday on a prescribed burn, this time as part of the crew that holds the fireline.  The whole crew here at Red River will cycle through our days off with lots of scorching weather in the forecast, and then (hopefully, wishfully, optimistically) I will be headed up, at last! Of course, it’s just as likely that I will get a call in two hours that it’s time to rally.

Elsewhere, in Betsy Life: Weekend before last I went over to Palouse Falls State Park to meet Devon, and we camped for a few days. The State Park is small, but gorgeous. The camp area has only ten sites, nestled into a little oasis of grass and trees, comfortable and cool even in 90 degree temps. The falls are below in a coulee—there is a fence bordering the cliff at the main overlook, but everywhere else in the park you are trusted to be smart enough not to fall off. And we were told there has never been a death or even a fall in the history of the park. Truly impressive, given that someone dies at Deception Pass every year or so, and the trails there don’t even lead directly along the cliff edges. Though, admittedly, Deception probably has hundreds of thousands more visitors annually.

A short hike upriver to the north along the top of the coulee brought us to a grade dropping down to the river. There was a shallow falls there, with perfect pools for swimming; a trail threaded from those falls back downriver in the coulee, to the very top of the main falls. While I was perched, clinging to a rock outcrop, watching thousands of gallons get sucked over the falls, I felt the urge to jump in and experience the 200’ slip ‘n’ slide for myself. Funny how we humans seem to be wired with that urge. The Morning, and the View, were Gorgeous. Elli kept our blood pressure up by getting as close as she possibly could to every edge we encountered. She also discovered that while a complacent Yellow-bellied Marmot looks like an animated chew toy, it does, in fact, bite. Fortunately, no one else witnessed her learning this lesson, as she also briefly got a mouthful of marmot.

I am super-glad for the fact we went camping, as it was my last chance to see Devon, though I didn’t know it at the time. We had an awesome time, and think that any of our friends driving through the southeast region of the state should choose to camp there, too. Because our friends have exquisite intellects and discriminating taste, just like us. Plus, Highway 261 is really fun to drive.

When I got back to the Ranger District, it was finally time for Critical Week, which had been put off due to shitty weather for nearly a month. The entire Fire crew camped in the woods, in a fashion which reminded me of old-school Boy Scout camping: wall tents and spring pole/tarp tents for kitchen and food; pit toilets; big-ass fire ring with a ridiculous amount of fire wood; personal tents yard-saled everywhere around. The food was good, and thanks to a brand-new 10-gallon percolator pot, the coffee was plentiful. There were only two nights of drenching, sleep-wrecking thunder and lightning. We did some prescribed burning the first couple of days. Well, the crews did, and I got to learn how to be the weather lady, with a sling psychrometer, anemometer and radio. I took wind speed, dry and wet bulb temperatures and relative humidity readings, and cloud observations; every hour, then half-hour, and broadcast them to the crews on the fire.

We also had a wildfire exercise. One day, after lunch, one crew at a time was called out by dispatch onto wildfires in the area. I was on a crew with a squad boss trainee; a second-year firefighter who was our sawyer; and two other rookies, one of whom was Detlef. I could go into great depth on the experience, and perhaps I can spend some time on the lookout writing it out, to share later. The short(ish) version goes: The fire was more complex than the supervisors who set it (the “supervisors” being “Tim Delph”) intended for it to be, though we didn’t know that at the time (apparently, burning snags aren’t intentionally set for these things, they just happen, oopsies). We also had two spot fires, set by the supervisors, and later, a genuine third spot fire in slash that we had swamped out. Within 10 minutes of arrival, our squad boss had to respond to a (mock) medical emergency, and then pulled the rookie who is the crew’s EMT to assist. Following that, our sawyer was also called off the fire to cut out an evacuation path for the medical emergency. That left me, Detlef, and a fellow named Nate—three rookies—to control a fire which was more hairy than strictly necessary. Nate’s radio had fallen out of his harness at some point early on (and its remains were later found in the ashes of our third spot fire), Detlef wasn’t sure how to use his, and I still had yet to be issued one, making communication with our boss, uh, tricky. Our chainsaw and Pulaski had left the fire with those responding to the emergency, and we were left with three scraping tools and no chopping tools to finish a fireline with lots of roots, saplings, branches, and beargrass in the way.

At one point early on, just after we Three Rookiteers had been left alone, the District Fire Manager came along as an evaluator of the crew’s effectiveness, safety, knowledge, etc. The fellow is a wee bit intimidating, and has a line of fire-specific Chuck Norris-esque jokes dedicated in his honor—i.e. “Q: When was Bransford’s rookie year? A: Bransford was never a rookie, he was born with a Pulaski in his hand in the middle of an inferno” and “Bransford doesn’t chop wood with an ax, he chops wood with his sheer will”. He started firing questions at us, most of which I knew the answers to, so I only peed myself a little bit. He seemed to believe that we weren’t stupid enough to get killed, maybe just maimed, and left to check on the other fires. We managed to get line around the fire’s perimeter, and started scraping out line around its separate hot spots. Just about the time we also believed we weren’t going to die, our boss and a few of the other supervisors arrived back from dealing with the “emergency”. They soon decided maybe calling in the engine with its water pumper would be an intelligent idea, along with the some of the other crews, whose fires were reportedly not nearly as exciting and were already out cold.

Overall, it was retrospectively thrilling, though a wee bit scary during. It was also not an inaccurate example of how a fire situation throws all sorts of wrenches at you—hopefully not the “rookies by themselves” type, but a good variety of other logistically complex situations, both “planned” and unintentional.

Other fun during the week involved chucking “grenades”, which are flare bombs used to start fires in an area it would be too dangerous to do physically; shooting the Very Pistol, which is a modified revolver/pistol cross that shoots smaller flares much father for the same purpose; lighting and using drip torches, which are hand-held tanks of a diesel-gas mixture used for lighting fires in direct proximity to yourself and the control line; and lighting fusees, which are like road flares, and are also used for lighting fire near yourself, though often in more of an emergency situation. There was music around the campfire, fart contests, fart barbershop quartets, two dogs eating bacon grease off of rocks, and the same two dogs running away for four hours the last night, returning at midnight. A grand week, altogether.

On Tuesday, in last-minute preparation for my imminent departure, I went out to Grangeville to purchase supplies for the lookout, like Formula 409, a mop, paper towels, and 40 pounds of lime for the shitter. I was about halfway there, still along the South Fork of the Clearwater River, when I passed a tiny fawn staggering down the road. I didn’t know what the hell to do about it, but sheer overwhelming pity led me to turn around and scoop the poor thing up. At that point, I really didn’t know what to do, and couldn’t get a hold of anyone on the radio to ask, so I drove back to a nearby campground that had a host. I was hoping that perhaps the hosts would be able to take care of the fawn until Fish & Wildlife arrived, or, failing that, would be very much interested in feeding a fawn by bottle and raising it to be a member of the family. The hosts were not at home, but I found some campers from Oregon who said the fawn had been wandering near the road the evening before, and had been moved up into the woods, in hopes that its mother would return. Since I could not find/contact anyone to tell me what to do; figured that driving the fawn to Grangeville was not the solution; and had a hunch that I wasn’t supposed to have touched it to begin with, let alone carted it around in the cab of my Forest Service pickup, I took the fawn up into a grassy, shady area in the woods above the road and hoped for the best for the starving, tired thing. And, just for what it’s worth, I also entertained the idea of feeding a fawn by bottle and raising it to be a member of the family, so that Elli could have a little sister to cavort about with at the lookout, and perhaps, by the end of the summer, Fawny could have been trained to be my new pack animal.

This is likely to be my last post until September, unless I have 3G cell service in the middle of the wilderness, and can type up some Blackberry blogs to send. I will write lots of boring stuff to share with you when I get back and can type it up. If you’re coming to visit, I can’t wait to see you! If you’re not, well, you can still send mail (hint, hint). Mail would be sent out with the trail crew, if they’ll be in my area, or when I get my re-supply, or can be sent with those of you who are visiting, provided you see my brother first. If you want to write, well, I probably shouldn’t put an address here. Give me a call, thereby ruining the surprise. Or ask my mom or brother for it. There you go. Assuming the rumored cell phone service does exist, you’re also free to call. Have a freaking rad rest o’ the summer.
Tim's crew: Tim, Cole, Jeff, Morgan, Luke

A side note: I realized, on my way into Elk City today, that I have not seen a news report since I left Blaine, on the 22nd of May. Whoa.


  1. Hang in there! Love the picture with the fire. And the little fawn.

  2. Lovely. Just lovely. I woke up homesick: this isn't helping! I spent most a summer camped upstream of the Palouse-Snake confluence, working at Lower Goose Dam. I skinny dipped many a time in that very pool you mention, and wandered the scablands between the park and confluence. It's a country of AMAZING beauty.

    Did you see the Mormon graffiti at the park, down near the mini-falls and swimming pool? "Elder John," "Elder Jacob?"