29 October 2011

Thorp Mountain Lookout, Hitch I: Part II: August 25-29

There were possible thunderstorms predicted for last night--not a thing occurred, don't think there were even any clouds. Today, again, a possibility, and clouds have been trying to build in the south all afternoon. They get nice and high, look promising, and then fall back down. The weather has all been moving in from the south-SE today, which is unusual for here, but was the norm for ID.

My shoulder's feeling quite a bit better, still don't know what was wrong. I decided, well, I knew, that I shouldn't haul snow in the tote, so I made 5 trips with the largest pot and the bucket. There was something down near the snowfield that made Elli put her hackles way up and bark her ass off, when we first got over there. She eventually calmed down a bit, so that I felt safe enough to move down, while hollering "hey, bear" and such. Elli then scared the shit out of herself by bumping into a tree limb, and scared the shit out of me by barking horribly at it. What's great is I watched her back into the branch, so I knew what was going on, but her bark was so primal that it still startled me.

We also gave the heli-pad a haircut in advance of today's flight operation. Looks nice and tidy. The helipad is a patch of dirt with a few plants on it and a large H made from 2x4s. It sits right on the narrowest part of the ridge.

The helicopter and crew were supposed to arrive between 9 and 10 AM. At 1147, I finally got a call saying that the helicopter had arrived at the airstrip. Around 1230 the first load came in, Mike from Cle Elum and some equipment; the second load with two radio technicians and more gear; and a third flight with a sling load. Pretty exciting, all in all, especially since 6 visitors arrived at the same time as the first flight.

Mike sees the second landing in

The sling load gets dropped on the far side of the lookout

Bob, the older of the two technicians, was a really nice guy, and had been a lookout in a couple of places back in the day, including Square Mountain (or Square Top, I forget which, sorry Bob!), outside of Grangeville. He dubbed Elli "The Queen", because she just lay around wherever she took a liking, and didn't budge, even if she was at the foot of the steps everyone kept taking, or was about a foot away from the repeater as they wrestled with it. Mike, from the fire crew, was fun to talk to, too, he grew up in Naches, and volunteered all sorts of information that he thought I might find useful, from info about old lookout staff to how to arrange a sling load.

They were at it a long time, trying to replace the radio repeater and install 3 new solar panels, and didn't get to finish before the helicopter had to leave. Seeing as how it was the pilot's fault they weren't able to start on time, they were a wee bit miffed, and I'm sure that having to run another mission is going to kill their budget. For the time being, I have no power, outside of AA batteries. Heh.

Emmer (farro) and Cattle Drive Chili for dinner. Now that's a combo. Ancient grain (now grown again in the Methow), and Costco-bought canned food. With the addition of fresh onions and Tillamook cheddar, it was delicious.

I was pretty uprooted from what small sense of solitude I had fostered, by the time yesterday was over. I don't know that I'll be having any roof-top satoris or monkey-freeing heart releases this go-round. So many interruptions, visitors and so on, let alone the impending days off. However: it is beautiful; I've got almost everything I need, now that the boys brought in a mop and bucket; and fire danger keeps going up. All we need is some freaking lightning.

This morning, pancakes sounded really good, despite the fact I knew it was going to be a challenge. The pots and lid-pans are GSIs cheapest, thinnest type--the ones that are good for boiling water and being lightweight in your backpack, and not much else. I decided that if I kept the heat very low, to give the pancake's interior a chance to cook before the outside scorched, and used a ton of oil, to avoid sticking, that perhaps I had a chance of success! Nay. Burned in the center, stuck like cement all the way across. Couldn't be turned. So I covered it, to try and 'steam' the rest of it to doneness, which worked. I then scraped the whole mess loose, a pile of pre-chewed-looking pancake, charcoal-black to fish-belly-white with hints of gold. Real not good, even with lots of butter and syrup.

No, that's not a mess-kit plate, that's my frying pan, and a soul-crushing pancake

(Back-to-back, on the iPod: Lamb of God, followed by the Carter Family. Both from my boss and friend, Charles. Quite possibly more schizophrenic than my farro-chili.)

Had a mildly exciting fire this afternoon, behind Hex Mountain. It was called in by the public, followed quickly by the volunteer at Red Top Lookout. The radio made it sound like the entire Teanaway was on fire, but it only got to about two acres, at which point I could finally see the smoke plume from it.

In the midst of the fire kicking up, some hikers came up with two dogs, and Elli went down to play with them, which was highly unusual. Then one of the hikers said, "Hi, Betsy!" It was friends from Bellingham, Jenny and Ian, their son Abel and their dog Maddie, along with some Jenny's sister, niece, nephew and dog. How stinkin' nice to see friends! They brought me a peach and a beer, and left me half an avocado, too. Abel was much taken with the fire finder. Perhaps if he's lucky, there will still be a lookout or two active by the time he's old enough to man one! [Jenny and Ian took some great pictures of their trip.]


...and swiftly re-purposed into a drinking glass!

There is a race going on this weekend, the Cascade Crest 100-miler, of which Thorp Peak is the highest elevation point, and approximately the 80-mile marker. They started today in Easton, and the first runners should start coming through, and Elli should start going batshit, in the middle of the night.

The first racer came through at 1:30, and then they just came through every so often after that. Elli did pretty well. She went over to the door to bark at the first one, but after that she just raised her head and 'hwoofed' at them from the comfort of bed. Now that it's daylight and she's up and about, she decides on a case-by-case basis whether or not to bark.

The bulk of the racers came by noon, and I think they were cut off at two. There were around 80-100 runners. Had a few regular visitors, and they were rather surprised by the amount of company they had. Seeing some of the folks who had made it this far, I began to think that maybe someday I could pull something like this off. Should probably start off with 'normal' trail races. Or with actually running regularly.

It was hot and hazy and a little stir-crazy-making today. Had one weird spot clear down south on Raven's Roost, and never could make out what it was. [Never did, either, must have been a weird trick of the light between the Roost and the peaks behind it, because I saw it occasionally for the rest of the season, but it always looked the same.]

By the end of work I was so hot and sweaty and dirty (it's dirty here, Jenny helped me to realize that: it was rockier at Sheep Hill. The floor, the firefinder, Elli, and my feet stayed much cleaner there), that I decided we would go down to Thorp Lake. It was further down than I expected, which made me pissy in my already-grumpy mood, but there were columbines blooming, and the lake was gorgeous, set in nice open woods with big old firs and hemlocks and campsites. Elli went in shoulder-deep straight away, and stayed there for awhile. We then took a maze of trails into the brushy thickets on the east side of the lake, trying to get around it far enough to have a view of the LO. Had no luck with that, and got disoriented in all that scrub. Can't get truly lost, the lake is right there, but sure can get pissed about not having the easiest way back to the campsites. Elli was still happy as a clam, though, and tore around as fast as she could, making noise like a horse thundering along the trails. We hauled ass back up here, which led to me reconsidering that 100-mile trail race idea. Yeah, there is no way in hell. Just not necessary in this lifetime.

Thorp Lake

The sunset, which was accompanied by a delicious dinner of tuna salad mac and cheese: mac and cheese, tuna, onions, mustard, and pickles! Even crappy days turn out okay.

A helicopter is scheduled to come in again today, between 10 and 11. Hopefully they do make it that early, because I am setting off for the trailhead at 1500, ready to try having days off in the big city, if for no other reason than picking up some decent pots and pans, bowls, silverware, measuring cups and spoons, a mug and a can opener at Goodwill.

Welp, it's 1830, and I'm still here, and uncertain if I'll be out of here tonight or not. The heli crew came and went (and I have my very own solar panel and battery now!), again getting here later than scheduled and having to leave without finishing everything, but the larger reason is that we have a fire northwest of me, on Hour Creek. The fire crew is so small on Mondays that literally everyone from the station is out on it or assisting with it, and so there is no one to pick me up. It's been sunny all day, but cool, and clouds are starting to crowd on the western mountains now.

the view to the south, Little Tahoma just peeking in on the right

1930: I'm getting socked in. Sometimes I can see the sun as a perfect circle through the blowing clouds: beautiful. Brilliant purple-blue and silver-green lupine against bright white misty smearing clouds, with wind humming in the guylines for a soundtrack.

"Make lookout extraction a priority" was the order over the radio just now! They're starting to demobilize the fire for the night, and conveniently, someone can drive from the trailhead near the fire to my trailhead, to fetch me. 1938: Heading out now, see you in four days.

26 October 2011

Thorp Mountain Lookout, Hitch I: August 20-24

{Well, here goes. Once again, hope it's interesting reading, and not just last year redux. I am going to do this first hitch in two batches of 5 days, because I wrote a whole lot in those first few days.}

I was nervous as hell when I called in on the radio for the first time in 11 months. "Wenatchee, 3Delph." "3Delph, this is Wenatchee." " I am Thorp Lookout, and I am heading up Knox Creek Trailhead to open the lookout." "Wenatchee copies, have a great day."

And with that I'm back at it. Up the trail through a meadow, which was a long slog with my heavy-ass pack. Elli was hot, and kept stopping us both in the shade, which is a classic move for her, and smart. She still hasn't really shedded this summer. It was a quick hike up, with one brief peek of the lookout, way up above on a knob--but then we were there in no time, and without the usual "sweet jeebus, how are we not there yet?" that occurs on most lookout hikes I have been on in Washington. The hike was the easiest thing that happened to me today.

First view of Thorp Lookout: on the right knob

Twenty-five visitors today. That's what stands out as the #1 difference between this year and last. [I had 24 visitors at Sheep Hill, including 5 friends, all season.] I was a little tired and hungry after the hike up, and the state of the L.O. pretty much overwhelmed me. I couldn't figure out where to begin cleaning, and people are coming in droves, literally 15 minutes after I've arrived and seen the L.O. and the view from it for the first time (can see Rainier and Adams! Can't see Glacier. Are those the Olympics peeking out over there? Wonder what the hell the name of all those peaks are? Well, at least I know Stuart.) Folks start, understandably, asking me questions, about me, the job, the building, the view, etc, many of which I fake the answers to. Somehow, it's terrifically embarrassing to say that I only just opened the lookout. And Elli, who has also only barely arrived, seems to be fully aware that these are her digs, and pins the first dog we meet by his neck when he comes on the porch. Twice. Nice to meet you, sir whose-dog-my-dog-just-told-off.

I was so overwhelmed by the situation, mostly the cleaning/state of the lookout (mold--everywhere. Floor filthy. Woodstove so full of ash that the door won't close properly. Twisted sticks of firewood sprawling over the entire NE corner, from floor to window. No mop. No bucket. No cleaning rag.), and the fact that it's much less warm and cozy than Sheep Hill (no cabinets or drawers--two rickety and dirty shelves, and rubbermaid totes, instead. Propane bottles, rusty and dirty, inside the L.O. Floor covered by a gray coating, rather than warm 'wood' linoleum. Firefinder stand is bare old plywood, and the firefinder map itself is so old and faded that I'm worried about using it), and I was still hungry, so I got kind of shaky and felt like crying most of the afternoon, without doing so. I cleaned the mold off of every surface, moved the 3 extra propane bottles and all the totes outside, swept, organized the wood and moved a lot outside, wiped down and trued the firefinder, and started learning the peaks.

There's no screen door. So while it's wonderful to still have this many wildflowers blooming this late in August, it is absolutely horrible to have this many mosquitoes inside the lookout. Found the shitter, down the west ridge; it's not smashed, as it was thought to be, but is just a throne, so has no cover in inclement weather, though it does have a beauty view of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness peaks and Mount Rainier.

I've never seen Rainier from this angle, but it looks a lot like a mirror view of the one from Tatoosh, with Little Tahoma perfectly exposed. I can't see I-90, at least not without binoculars. I look right down on Lake Kachess to the SW, little white power boat tails all day, occasional motor sound drifts up on the wind. Thorp Lake is to the SE.

I think it'll be great here, but from the first night out's vantage point, I miss how well set up and equipped and clean good ol' Sheep Hill was. Ah well.

Five gallons of water hauled before breakfast! From the cache at the saddle, which the old lookout told me about. There's a bit more down there, too.

Effing burned my hand pouring water out of the shitty pot with the shitty handle into a shitty mug. The kitchen is sorely lacking in all sorts of things, and the few things that I have packed won't be up here for several more days.

One tote of snow hauled up here to melt, too. Starting at 0930 is great! I can do a bunch of stuff while it's still cool out, and just relax after work. Well, and relax, comparatively speaking, while I am working, too. Rearranged the N side of the LO. Cleaned up all the new mold and rust and rotted things that that exposed.

Well, the district ranger just made a sneak attack. Lots of visitors today (13 and 3 dogs by 1400), and then I meet a gal, her husband, and their dog name Carlie. Chat for awhile. She asks me my name, and then responds, "well, I'm Judy, and not to scare you, but I'm the District Ranger" (that is to say, my 'biggest' boss on the Cle Elum district). Maybe not scared, but got the adrenaline running, anyway. Another visitor was fun--her dog was aggressive, and she told me to put Elli away, and that she had pepper spray in case anything happened. Unclear if she meant she'd use it on her dog or on mine. Putting Elli inside is by far the easiest, for certain. The annoyance at being told what to do, at my own 'home', is still great. I won't lie, this visitor thing might make this unsustainable.

The mosquitoes are out of control. Elli and I are getting a little crazy. The natural bug repellent is with the gear not yet arrived. 100% DEET is not my favorite. Also looking forward to pillow/sheets, food, and gin. And books.

Perhaps a mourning period for Sheep Hill, since I can't seem to stop comparing the two. Mourn, then let it be, move forward. Not the first time my Cascades have had to win me back again. I'm here on a beautiful peak-y peak, with wildflowers erupting (in the end of August! lupine, paintbrush, yarrow, sulphur flower, heather, harebells, valerian, lousewort, columbine!) in an L-4 lookout that has been standing since the 30s. Rainier is big as life, the peaks are jagged steep sharp--and yet I miss Idaho so much it hurts. Instead of 3+ ridges to explore on walks, we have one, and it's full of tight little groves of alpine fir and mountain hemlock (my favorite tree!). I miss the open rocky sparse expanses with beargrass and the occasional wildflower or patch of heather and penstemon, that looked so desolate to me in the beginning, and the surrounding country so rounded off--but I miss it. The Frank Church's remoteness, its beauty, and the ease with which my eyes could roll over those mountains on checklooks. These peaks ridges valleys drainages will become familiar to me too, and I will know their names, like I knew Burnt Knob, Boston, Spot, Salmon, Sheepeater, XIII, Oregon Butte, Bargamin, Cache, Rattlesnake, Mallard, etc...most of those were strangers at first, too. But I had company during that first stage last year, and now I have shit-tons of unfamiliar faces asking me questions I feel I'm pulling the answers to out of my ass. And god knows, I hate feeling like I suck at my job. But I do have dear sweet Elli, who keeps comforting me, even though I feel guilty that her home keeps getting invaded and that she's a walking mosquito-feeding machine.

Smiley LE Dogg, comforter of the upset, upsetter of the comfortable 

Today involved hauling another tote of snow for water (the patch of snow is on the north side of the west ridge), re-doing the forest map on the side of the firefinder stand (there is no drop-down map), and unpacking my stuff! Four guys from the Naches crew brought up 8 boxes and a stuff sack, along with a roll of screen! They were the only visitors, too, thank god.

The "Pack String" leaves. Thanks, boys. 

It was a largely overcast day, with wind that started last night at dark and has yet to stop. Rain and socked in just before going out of service. Did all the dishes (I've been eating out of one pot, with one spoon, waiting for dish soap), excepting the ones I threw away for being irretrievably disgusting. Made mac n cheese with green chiles and sundried toms for dinner: discovered there is no can opener. Truly fucking ridiculous.

Have a fire going now, and Elli is sleeping with her head on my pillow. Tea in the morning and a real breakfast: oh boy.

I slept a lot better, with the fire going (have a leaky air mattress, not a real mattress or pad=cold sleeping) and a pillow. We went down to find the water source for this morning's walk. Not too far, it feels about the same or just a little further than last year. If so, it was more like a 1 1/2-2 mile round trip last year, too. A pretty little stream, which I have a hard time believing could make me sick (how naive does that sentence sound?!), I had a few handfuls of unfiltered water to drink, so we'll see. I figure that the simple fact that there are no less than four filters in the LO must mean something.

Built the screen door: YAHOO! No longer have to choose between solar-powered sauna and mosquito-induced madness! Hauled one more tote of snow, now have 15 gallons of snow water and 7 gallons of drinking water.

Had a nice after-work walk out the ridge with gin and lemonade (Betsy's Lookout Cocktail of Choice), and then sat on the rock outcropping west of the lookout in the falling sun and settled further into place. Comfort and contentment are finally starting to sink in.

Spotted first smoke this morning around 0900. It was really far away, but I called in the azimuth and my distance estimate to dispatch. Turns out it was around 40 miles away, past Ellensburg, and that a city or county fire department was responding. Still looks good, no matter what: at least I'm doing the job they hired me for.

In other news, I've jacked up my shoulder. Don't know what I did, but it hurts like a mother and I can't breathe properly. After a few hours of being careful, it was easing up a bit, and I was scoping where to hang the solar shower (Shower Day!). I slipped on a rock and flung my arms out to catch myself on a guywire, and it's much worse since then. Can't lift much, can't bend forward, can't lie back, still can't breathe, can't use left arm well, even though it's the right arm that's hurt. Don't know. I hope it's just a muscle spasm or something that will ease off. I do not want to have to leave, but if I can't haul water or anything else, well, I'm effed. Also, it's Shower Day, one of my favorite days, and my hair is greasy as hell. If I can't lift the solar shower, let alone my arms to wash my hair...meh.

Got a call from the Fire FMO, and he sounds great, kind, friendly, glad to have me here, and eager to help by sending up a mop, a bucket, and several cubies of water when a helicopter comes in to fix the radio repeater, probably friday. Hot damn, yo.

The evening walk ended sitting on another rock outcropping, looking back at my little lookout shack with the Stuart Range streaming behind, from west, through the lookout windows, and on east; surrounded by wildflowers. Laughing: this is exactly what a lookout "should" be, archetypal: light and mountains streaming through windows, beauty and brightness, wilderness and one little outpost of civilization.

Crows (or Ravens?: "If you think it's a raven, then it's a crow. If you know it's a raven, then it's a raven.") swoop and sail and cruise on the updrafts that push up Thorp's ridges.