09 January 2012

Thorp Mountain Lookout, Hitch III: September 17-26

Well, I gave my first dish the "Kajsa Treatment", so named for her dishwashing procedure when she was on Sugarloaf Lookout a few years back. I had made fried taters and onions with chili for dinner, all in the non-stick pan, which I would usually just wipe out with a paper towel. I let Elli lick it first, and then wiped it with a paper towel, and put it back on the shelf. Not quite the same as Kajsa's dog-licked and wiped dinner plate, but it has now happened, all the same.

A lot of visitors, for a rainy-ass Saturday. Most of them were from Seattle, and probably figured it would be dry over here on the east side of the mountains. Heh. I actually built a fire and made coffee after we got up here today. Reading, crosswords, and baking bread. Rainy, no-visibility days are kinda nice in a lookout. It's now a quarter after seven, and I already have the lantern turned on. Dark because of the clouds, sure, but also because fall is a-coming.

You know the weather's crappy when Elli Dog doesn't even want to go outside to pee, let alone her (usually) much insisted upon morning walk. This is when it is good to be a lookout, though. The poor wilderness rangers, who slept out all night in the rain, now have to pack up their tents and continue on their trail itinerary. "It's pouring along the [Pacific] Crest", says Ranger Morrow over the radio. Ayuh. It's pouring here. So, especially against that comparison: I am in a room with a (mostly) leak-less roof, a warm wood fire, a propane stove ready to make me another cup of tea or coffee, perhaps a batch of muffins. I have little to do but tidy up, read or write. Spoonshine is on the ipod, singing about Anacortes. Along with a bonus: I can collect rainwater off the roof that is suitable for cleaning and dishwashing. I don't have to haul it anywhere. As well as the fact that visitors are unlikely.

Tonight Idaho and the Frank Church-River of No Return started creeping into my psyche again. That sense of being in a place more primitive, rougher, plainer, closer to its original state is hard to describe. The Cascades feel softer, prettier, their much more jagged peaks and edges rounded down by the sheer volume of human presence and effect, if not yet by erosion. In reading The Ridgerunner, I feel more immediately connected to that landscape of northern Idaho than I do when reading about Hardy's Tatoosh or Snyder or Kerouac's North Cascades. The landscape, the towns, and the feeling of the place is still much more the same, here in the 21st century. The word 'lookout' somehow means something different in Idaho, like 'space', and 'smokejumper' and 'wilderness' do too. All in a way that is, again, hard to quantify, but rougher and more original, more genuine to what it meant in decades that have now gone by. Of course, I miss the hell out of the crews and overhead in the Red River Ranger District fire crew, too. 

The sky is clearing, blowing fog has opened out to show us Thorp Lake and the base of the peaks to the north, as well as Jolly and Humerus peaks in the east. The sun has shone in brightly enough to cast shadows for wee stretches of time. It's a beautiful day, and I'm relieved to have a view again. Plus I'll have all sorts of water dogs {the bits of water vapor left behind after rain, that often look a lot like smoke, and keep you eyes sharp} to mess with my mind in their ephemeral way. I have yet to check the rain gauge today, but with a possible inch of rain since Saturday, no lightning, and no one in the woods because of rain, it is extremely unlikely to find a fire. But my hopeful eyes will be latching onto the odd water dogs, ever optimistic.

What a beautiful day. It cleared off slowly but steadily, and now we sit on the rock outcropping NW of the LO, each of us in a perfect curl of rock for repose and reflection and observation; me with a gin and lemonade, and Elli with perked ears. An elk bugling down in No Name Basin. I'm storing up the sight of long and golden rays of light on amber-green trees for winter; balm for the February gray.

Crystal-clear this morning, and a nice inversion over Kachess Lake and the I-90 valley. I think inversions are my favorite weather show, outside of raging electrical storms.

I had one visitor, a guy from the WTA, who I had talked to on the radio several times over the summer, and relayed messages for when his trail crews were near Paddy Go Easy Pass and Deep Lake. He was a nice guy, fun to talk to, and gave me goldfish crackers and a delicious plum. I will always be a fan of those gifts. Just before he left, another person came hiking up the trail. It was Devon!

Devon blew all other gifts that hikers (including friends who've brought in amazing troves of goodies) out of the water. Two thick T-bone steaks, a head of lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts, an avocado, an acorn squash, jerky, pepper sticks, cheese, crackers, half a dozen eggs, a pound and a half of bacon, a fifth of vodka, a partial fifth of whiskey, and the grand finale, presented with much fanfare (and understandably:) a mini-keg (1.3 gallons!) of Widmer Hefeweizen, complete with 2 lemons. Holy crap. We shall dine like kings.

It's marvelous having Devon here. He likes it just fine. We went down and hauled water before breakfast, with Elli running beserker laps up and down the hillsides. She still seems astonished that he's here. For breakfast? Eggs over easy with bacon and toast. Perhaps mundane, but not at a lookout. I miss fresh eggs a lot.

I had what I am still relatively certain was a fire! We were about done with breakfast when a big cloud pushed out from behind Amabilis Mountain. It looked like a water dog, so I discounted it at first, though I couldn't help thinking of the time last year when Indian Hill LO and I could both see what looked like a water dog and turned out to be smoke. And just like today, the one thing that made it very odd was that it was the only water dog in 360 degrees of sight. As this one dispersed, it didn't act like water vapor, it acted like smoke. A few minutes later, a column of 'smoke' came up in the exact same spot, so I called in a smoke report. Dispatch sent an engine out, and they spent all day looking, but never found it. The fact that I couldn't see the base of the smoke is largely to blame. When a smoke is behind a ridge from my viewpoint, it could be on that same ridge, or it could be several miles behind it. Couple that with tall timber blocking sight distance on the ground where the crews are, and it gets tricky. The engine went to the wrong spot on Amabilis initially, which didn't help either. The last column it put up was at 3 PM, and I haven't seen it since. The crew never saw it at all. My best guess, if it was a false smoke, is that it had something to do with the construction on I-90. I can see the dust, further west, where all of the blasting is going on near Lake Keechelus, for instance. But that's dust.  This was smoke. Or something else that caused distinctive blue-white puffs and columns to be sent up and not disperse easily. {I still have no idea what it was. There wasn't an asphalt plant in that area, and no RVs caught fire. Mystery.}

This morning I got a call from the boss. Sounds like the plan is to shut down the LO on Monday. The handcrew will come up, cut some more firewood, help drop the shutters, and back-haul all the junk that needs to go.

The hawks and ravens have been giving an awesome aerial show. The ravens execute barrel-roll after barrel-roll into the distance, and the hawks display their expert sailing and gliding, with the occasional dive-bomb after the hot-dogging ravens. Good fun.

We got up this morning before the sun, and made oats with fresh honeycrisp apple and cinnamon. Hit the trail right about 7, to hike Devon down to the trailhead, help him get his motorcycle all geared up, and most importantly, be sure he was able to get going. The clutch cable broke on his way up here. At a little after 8:30, he fired it up, got a running push down the road, hopped on, and jammed it into first gear. Hurrah! He's got to make it all the way to Seattle, shifting with no clutch, and without stopping, even for a traffic light, but at least he's on his way alright. Then Elli and I started back up the trail, pushing hard to be back at the top before it was time to clock in. We made it in 50 minutes! A definite record for the summer. Got a call from Devon, and he had made it all the way to his friend's house in Greenlake, only breaking the law once or twice.

The weather forecast for Monday's shut down is looking suitably shitty. These things are never scheduled for good weather. Twelve sets of muddy boots should make a handsome mess out of the floor.

I've known that the firefinder map is old, but I discovered it is forty years old. No wonder it's freaking nearly useless. The Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and a lot of its trails, are missing, as well as perhaps half of all the logging and Forest Service roads. I've been relieved more than once this summer that I didn't have more fires. Between the ancient fire finder, the hard-to-read district map, and the inexplicable lack of USGS quads, I would have been effed. Sheep Hill's firefinder map was old, too, but its entire area was wilderness, where no roads, let alone freeways, exist, and trails are minimal.

This is where the season's ending gets sad, and real. A low-pressure cold front has moved in, due to last all week, so I've likely already seen the Olympics, Adams, Rainier and possibly the sun for the last time, without getting to say goodbye.

Cookies are in the oven for the crew, and food is sorted into 'staying' and 'going'. Packing done, just need to tape boxes. Beans and farro on the woodstove for dinner. It was windy last night, with hail, rain, and none of the hoped-for and forecast lightning. Cleaning is done, firewood is stowed. We have had fog, pouring rain, and brief breaks without rain or wind. Tomorrow, despite all hopes, still looks to be miserable.

It is snowing. This is awesome, and I say that only partially sarcastically, because I may not have had any lightning and few fires, but being snowed on still makes it feel like an official lookout season. It was freaking freezing last night, even with the fire going. Elli must have been cold, too, because she came up onto my bed,  snuggled against me under the sleeping bag, and didn't move for hours. For a fidgety, independent dog, this is impressive.

{The crew got here, and they were soaking, and miserable, as is completely understandable. We said screw it to cutting firewood, and took turns going out to wrestle with the shutters and other chores in the blowing sleet. Freaking terrifically miserable. The lookout has mold problems, have I mentioned that? I've been careful to dry it out and clean it up as well as possible. Having 11 wet people and one wet dog trying desperately to stay warm, steaming over a fire just before sealing up a building is an unfortunate thing. At least I understand now why the floor was so filthy and things were covered in fuzzy white, green and black mold when I opened up.}

I thought of this season, in the beginning, as a sort of practice run for next year, because this one would be so short. I thought I'd figure out what is going on up here, learn the peaks and creeks, find out how things work on the district and the forest, and figure out what the lookout needs to be fixed up. That's pretty much exactly what it amounted to, with the lack of lightning and fire.

I don't think that the number of visitors will be something I can deal with for a long-term post. I had 181 visitors, which does not include the 20 Forest Service staff, Jon or Devon, or the 100+ racers. (Again, for comparison: I had 19 public visitors last year, 8 Forest Service, and 5 friends.) That, coupled with the days off, makes for a very different experience. The story of Gary Snyder writing the District Ranger at Marblemount and asking for the remotest hardest-to-reach lookout possible is exactly up my alley. I was even sad last year, when I didn't get the more remote LO I had applied for in Idaho. Ah, well. The fact that I am immensely lucky to be a lookout, anywhere, in this day and age, is not lost on me, and I can definitely handle it for a while.

I'm packing 'er in, again. Thanks, Thorp.

The Rest of the Season
I stayed on the district until the end of October. We did a lot of prescribed burning, and a lot of it was in the rain. I got to know what was left of the crew, and grew to appreciate some of them greatly, including a guy I had taught swim lessons to as a kid, years ago in Packwood. I spent a sizeable chunk of time in the office, creating the check lists, operating plans, inventories and forms that the lookout should have had to begin with. I got to go out with a Silviculturist and walk a huge part of a contracted thinning operation, on a beautiful sunny fall day. I spent one day with the Geologist, meeting the crazy miners of Blewett Pass, and seeing some of the damage that has been caused by mining in Swauk Creek. I stayed, the whole time, with my good friends Helen and Aja, and their newborn baby Anna, and their cat JonesyLee. I felt immensely lucky to spend that much time with them, and especially at a time when such huge life change was going on. Anna is one great kidlet. This here life o' mine is blessed.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful, my friend. Your season's chronicles were a welcome companion today, when I couldn't find my own writing voice so sought solace in yours instead. Thanks for sharing your Lookout experiences with us, sweetie - made my heart clench up quite a few times. And all those blessings in your life? Directly proportionate to the many blessings you bring to the rest of us.