Friday, September 29, 2006

Too Many Mysteries

Friday September 29 2006

I went out with an archaeologist this week for a crash course in some work I’ll be doing next month – it was awesome! This Great Basin area has an enormous plethora of historic and especially prehistoric relics. Anything older than 50 years old is historic (mining, historic trash dumps of cans, pottery, old buildings, etc), and anything older than Indians’ first contact with Europeans is prehistoric, the date of which which varies with the area.

The Humboldt-Toiyabe forest is some 1.2 million acres, and much of the history and prehistory here is unknown and unrecorded. Alice and I came across several areas that would pretty obviously have supported prehistoric peoples, which have never been recorded – maybe never even looked at. It’s the same for most forests, I’m sure – no money to fund people to do this work – which blows my mind. This is our history, our lands – wouldn’t you want to know what we own, what is slowly disappearing and will never be found again? It would be like not knowing who you were or where you came from or who your family was. Imagine not knowing anything about the Civil War and the history and people behind it. This is the same, more history, just a new facet and much much older.

But it’s the same in Greece and Egypt – unknown quantities of ruins lying under dirt and sand that have never been excavated – even when you can see pieces of whole cities sticking out of farmland or sand dunes, they just lay there, untouched.

Anyway, once you start looking for things and you start finding them, the questions start multiplying and quickly overwhelm you. Way out in the boonies one day in an old sand-dune-drifted lake bed in a huge valley, we found, as Alice expected, a prolific lithic scatter. Bazillions of worked pieces of obsidian, most of the almost-clear variety, which we expect comes from a local source of Mt Hicks, some beautiful red and black obsidian, origin unknown, and some ‘chocolate obsidian’, which Alice had never seen before. Which means it must have been traded for – where? When? Who did it? Who lived here? How many years ago? How many people? When did the lake dry up? Right now there is no water, hardly anything but the hardy greasewood bush and some other wicked sticky desert bushes. What was here back then? Were there also springs around? What did they eat? Did they migrate in winter? What happened to them?

If we could find a projectile point, the area could probably be dated, compared with other lithic findings and recordings from the Great Basin. Then, we found a whole one! This one, however, did not look like any other known projectile point (Alice had cheat 4-5 sheets, which show the time periods different points were made in). Was it just a re-worked point? A new group of people?

Whoever or whenever it was from, I was holding in my hand an object another human being made with his hands and used 100, or 1000, or 10,000 years ago. I just find that to be astounding. When I was in Greece and Egypt I kept touching things (that said “Do not touch”) that were thousands of years old – I think my record was something from 2600 BC (!!!) – but here, these obsidian flakes could literally be 3 times that old, from ~8000BC…

You can really get into the searching – especially me, since I’m also fixated on the wildlife. My eyes search the ground (and trees) for flakes, burned bones, rock rings, metates, monos, game drives, bowstave trees, wickiups – anything not laid down by nature – in addition to keeping an eye out for bird feathers, tracks, animals, ground holes, in addition to watching the sky, (for birds and thunderheads), and the land around me (for cougars watching us). Your eyes are always searching, your mind is always churning with more and more questions. Hours fly by very quickly.

One dry area where we were finding a few flakes, high up in a sloping bowl against the base of this mountain we discovered a mysterious cross-hatch layout of old axe-cut juniper logs – who on earth started something there, this high with no water around - what was it – who-what-why??

In addition to the archy treasures, we saw 3 golden eagles (2 soaring above us, 1 flew alongside our truck), coyotes, way too many jackrabbits, 1 young bear track, and: a wild horse herd! And: 2 suspected cougar poos!!!

Yep, I could definitely get into this archy stuff…

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Boggin' It

Sunday September 24 2006

Almost lost a horse today…

We were up for some exploring today. We got dropped off at Devil’s Gate pass – Gretchen on Raffiq, me on Spice - and were going to wind our way along ‘trails’ through valleys and canyons, out Yaney Canyon, about 11 miles to the southeast where our truck and trailer was left for us.

I say ‘trails,’ because who knows if there were roads, or trails, or cow trails, or no trails, even though they show up as trails on the map. It’s mostly cow and sheep allotments and places where hunters go looking for their big bucks. Nobody hikes back there like they do the usual scenic areas in the Sierras.

The first couple of miles turned out to be a nice old road, winding back through a long, wide valley lined with mountain mahogany and green, yellow and orange aspens –they’ve just started to turn colors – and lorded over by hills and rocky outcroppings. Lovely!

When we ran into Long Valley, the trail-turned-cow-trail headed west, but not east, the way we were headed. So, we followed meandering cow trails east along Long Valley Creek, looking for Huntoon Creek that would join Long Valley Creek from the south. There was supposed to be a ‘trail’ along that canyon too.

Our cow trails ran into a steep shale hill, and our way further down-valley looked to be blocked by impenetrable willow and a fence, so we shortcut up the hill to our south, heading for a saddle. It looked fairly easy… We had to bushwhack around bitterbrush and sagebrush and mountain mahogany and aspens as we climbed; we got to a rather steep spot where Raffiq had to push through some overgrown brush, and he rather didn’t want to go on. So, Gretchen hopped off and led Raffiq up, and I hopped off Spice and did the same. We scrambled and climbed and slid (it wasn’t that steep, just not solid footing) and gasped for air, doggin’ it up the hill.

Finally up top (whew!) after we humans caught our breaths, we mounted and aimed for Huntoon Creek in the canyon below, saw a coyote, and ended up getting back off to lead the horses down the somewhat steep hillside, winding around through the Jeffrey pines and the ever-persistent mountain mahogany. At the bottom in Huntoon canyon, there was a nice cow trail (maybe it was the actual ‘trail’) we followed – lost it once or twice in an ankle-deep boggy area - through the golden-leaved-aspen-lined creek. Lovely!

The trail widened out to a wet willow section along the creek. We followed Raffiq across a little ankle-deep bog, when Spice took a step with her left foreleg and suddenly sunk to her knee. My instinctive reaction was to pull her head up, but then her right front sunk down to her chest, and we were in instant big trouble.

As she tried to struggle back up, her back end must have sunk down too, because she fell over on me to the left. I landed with a soft thud in the mud, my leg underneath her left side, and I scrambled madly to slither out from under her and away. I succeeded… but, in a panic, she struggled wildly again trying to get up, and succeeded in falling on her side on top of my leg again. I scrabbled frantically to get away from her and finally got clear. She kept thrashing about, going nowhere but further down, and then came to a dazed standstill, half buried in the mud. I grabbed the lead rope attached to her halter I always ride with, and as she started thrashing again I pulled hard on the lead rope, trying to help her.

Sinking further down in back, she managed to get the left hind curled up at an awkward angle, and the left front leg up, curled underneath her and she came to an exhausted stop again – right by a downed aspen with sharp menacing branches.

Meanwhile, Gretchen and Raffiq had gotten through the bog with no problem, and this had happened so fast, she hadn’t even seen it, only heard the commotion behind her, and asked “Are you okay?”

“No I need help!”

I talked to Spice and petted her head while she panted; and I desperately yanked at the branches of the aspen – if she did manage to get out right there she’d cut her front legs to hell or break them. I snapped one branch off and flung it aside, and tried stomping on the other – but it was too thick, no way would it break. Gretchen appeared at my side then and I handed her the lead rope and gestured the other direction – “pull her that way!” Spice struggled and thrashed again, and while Gretchen got her turned a little away from the treacherous aspen, Spice was getting nowhere – only deeper – and she stopped, exhausted again. Now all that was sticking up was her neck and the top of my saddle and the very top of her butt. Bloody hell!

I stroked her head – which was down at my knees - and told her to rest a second, while my brain was thinking – this is like one of those Discovery Channel shows in Africa where the wildebeests are struggling and thrashing and dying in the mud because they can’t get out. My mind couldn’t hardly process that this was happening – Spice about to drown in a mud hole – it was unbelievable, because the more she thrashed, the deeper she went and the bigger the hole got.

We looked desperately for what the hell to do or where to go… forward or to the closer side by the aspen was impossible. To the right… maybe. It looked firmer – but then it had all looked the same, like any other bog I’ve ridden over the last 8 years - and Raffiq had ridden right over it - until Spice went down. Sure I’d heard of bogs, but never seen anything like this – it was like the quicksand you read about in books.

I took the lead rope and moved to the right, and when Spice started struggling again, I pulled for all I was worth. We succeeded in getting her turned that way – but she was still sunk to over her chest, back end gone. She exhaustedly came to a rest again, her eyes half-glazed over and her nose resting just above the mud.

In the back of my mind, which I refused to listen to, was a thought that we might not get her out of here. I stroked Spice’s head, and she nickered in drained despair to Raffiq.

When Spice started struggling again, we hauled and prayed and we yelled at Spice “COME ON SPICE! GET UP!” We pulled and she thrashed, and she got one front leg out, and almost the other, then she crashed back down in the bog on her left side again. She quit, but Gretchen and I kept pulling and yanking, we kept yelling, and Spice thrashed again and managed to get up a little further this time. She crashed down again on her side, but she knew she just had to make it out this time. “GET UP GET UP!!” And finally, she made it to her front feet and scrambled madly behind, while we kept pulling – she could see where we wanted her to go – and – she made it!

We led her up to where Raffiq was and we all stopped, doubled over panting, legs shaking. Spice was covered in mud from her neck down. Her tail was completed dreadlocked with mud. I was covered in mud pretty much from the waist down. Thank the lord, nothing on Spice was damaged, and she quickly calmed down. She must have been stuck in that bog just a few minutes – less than five, surely – but that time sure went by slowly.

I had a look back at where Spice went in – it was a nasty muddy pool of churned-up muddy quicksand. I see now how that can swallow an animal right up. Wouldn’t take long for one to die in there.

Our big problem now was – how to get out of here? Definitely not going back the way we came, and the way forward was more muddy boggy ground that looked the same as all the other, and we were not chancing. I went up through the gnarled aspen grove trying to find a way through, and then after we were sure Spice was okay, we clambered uphill, away from the bog and up above the aspens. Whew – I sure hadn’t planned on so much physical exertion today!

The rest of the day was easy, and pleasant again. Spice recovered quickly from her near-disaster and was soon scavenging for grass every step along the way, like nothing had happened.

We found the gap in the hills we were looking for that led us onto a flat above Yaney Canyon – and found a nice trail to follow, all the way down. Part of Yaney was towered over by cool rock formations, like tufas in Mono Lake, or Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon… just ripe for cougars… but after the day we’d already had, we wouldn’t say the C-word out loud so as not to tempt fate any more. Had enough adventure for today, thank you!

Only an 11 mile ride – it took us 5 hours. Not a record-breaking pace, and, not a trail we want to repeat! That’s what you get when you go exploring – you never know what you’ll find. Great trails, killer bogs.

What was it I said last time about enjoying every day, or ride, or horse, because it might be your (or your horse’s) last?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Cabin Fever

Friday September 22 2006

You never know when you wake up in the morning it might be your last… so enjoy what you have when you have it. You never know when you make a pack trip in to divine Piute Cabin that it might be your last (just for this season!)… so enjoy it.

One more pack trip up the West Walker River to Piute Cabin – this time with first timers: the district ranger, the resources officer, and the range con. You should have heard them when, after 11 miles, we crossed the West Walker and crossed into Piute Meadows and they got their first view of Piute Cabin: “WOW! This is AWESOME!” etc. I was in back, so I couldn’t see their faces.

All five equines got to go in again. We old-timers stuck together: me (the oldest) riding pokey 22-year-old Red Top and leading loaded 24-year-old Brenda the mule. And, by the way, can you believe all 4 of us girls got 2 days’ and 2 nights’ worth of food and gear in a fairly light load on Brenda? We left our makeup and curling irons behind.

The new girls were taken by the cabin and surroundings and were impressed with the traditions that come along with the cabin that were either started by or reverently continued by Tim the last ranger (for 15 years) at Piute Cabin. You cook, wash dishes, clean a certain way; everything in its place. They read journals of the old rangers from the 80’s and admired the rockwork, feather decorations, book collections, fan mail collected over the years for Tim and Piute Cabin. You can’t help but be taken by the character and soul of the cabin and the spirits of people who lived there and cared for it, and the wilderness around it. Like me, now they feel bound to keep up these great respectful traditions, and, the DR noted, it sure would be nice (and, gee, practical!) to use this resource again and staff it with someone who cares.

The next day while the girls planned a day-long ride to Kennedy Canyon to check on a grazing allotment, I’d planned to put in a day of trail work – hike the 3+ uphill miles to Tower Lake and “put the trail to bed” for the winter: clear the trail of rocks and dig out waterbreaks for the winter. The girls would ride Paiute, Tom and Zak while I kept Red Top and Brenda in the flimsy corral and hiked up the trail.

Those plans changed when it took us over 1 ½ hours to catch our horses! The immediate Piute Meadows, where the cabin sits at the head, is ¾ of a mile long. Beyond that is another quarter mile of meadows, and another meadow or two even further up. Two trails continue leading up – the right one to Tower Lake at 9600’ and a dead end, and the left up to and over Kirkwood Pass at 10,000’. Now, since there’s no fences at the far end of the meadows, the horses could conceivably trek on out into the wilderness and end up in Bridgeport or the west side of the Sierras. I see no reason they would do that, climbing up and up when they can stay in the meadows and eat grass all night, but, there is that slim chance. At least they can’t get out the way we came in because there is a (very flimsy) fence there.

By 8:30 AM I still hadn’t seen the horses anywhere in the pasture, so we all gathered halters and treats, and headed out. A good half-mile out there, we did see them, and they saw the 4 of us with halters, and their heads flew up and their bodies poised for flight, because there’s no reason 4 humans would be headed out with halters unless work was involved! Good ol’ Brenda, seeing food, headed our way as I predicted, and Red Top followed. Those two came up and started eating out of the bucket – we got a halter on Red Top, but Brenda grabbed a mouthful and danced away toward the wayward gang of boys who had started loping away for the far trees.

The young range con, full of fire and indignation at those impertinent equines, leaped bareback on Red Top and loped off after the herd, thinking to round them up and drive them in. The herd only thought this was great fun, and bounded to a gallop, disappearing into the forest. The range con slowed Red Top, and he reared and crow hopped (!! We never imagined he had it in him!) – it was a great sight, rearing horse, long-haired girl clinging on bareback, the morning sunlight slanting into the meadow backlighting them with their red manes and tail… but it meant our other horses were quite gone!

I crossed the meadow, waded the river, hiked through the woods and discovered new meadows, and finally, came upon our naughty horses. I maneuvered around them and started herding them back to the big meadows. At 8300’, I jogged, I ran, I gasped for breath, I hollered to keep Paiute going the correct direction, I sprinted, I almost collapsed. The gang eventually, evasion adventures successfully accomplished, walked their way back to and across the river and meadows, toward the cabin and the corral, where I’d left treats, and where they were calmly and happily eating when I finally caught up with them and penned them up.

So after all that running and exercise, no way was I going to hike 1300’ up and do trail work all day, plus I had the feeling that the corral wouldn’t hold Brenda and Red Top after the excitement of running around with their buddies. So, we all went out riding the trails. I hadn’t planned to take the old timers along on a ~14 mile ride, but, there wasn’t much elevation gain involved, so it wasn’t too hard on them. It was nice to ride over trails I’d hiked many times with the trail crew in recent years.

Next day the 3 girls headed out the long way, up over Kirkwood Pass and out Buckeye Canyon, but since that was going to be a hard climb and long day, I took the two old timers out the way we came – the easy way, 11 miles downhill all the way.

Red Top and Brenda and I had the trails to ourselves (ran into only one hiker at this best time of year) enjoying the cool fall day – aspens just beginning to turn, chipmunks (Horse-Eating Chipmunks, I might add!) madly scurrying to grab and store food for the winter, cackling Clark’s nutcrackers, fall breeze rattling the aspen leaves and dried up mule’s ears (Brenda’s favorite trail snack). I bid farewell (for the season!) to Piute Meadows and Hawksbeak Peak, to my favorite huge 4-trunked juniper tree on the trail (which I’ve hugged before).

I enjoyed pretty much every minute of it… but I sure hope I’m on the trail again next year…

Sunday, September 17, 2006

It's Here

Sunday September 17 2006

Fall is here! A cold blast on Friday decisively brought that autumn nip in the air – my favorite time of year. The light is great for photos; Northern harriers are skimming the valley fields for mice (the first one came through end of August; you see a lot of them now in September) on their migration somewhere south, presumably South America; leaves dropping from trees in downtown Bridgeport and blowing across the sidewalks and street; leaves of a few of the ground-aspens in the mountains just beginning to turn; the horses’ coats starting to become a bit fuzzy; ice in the water hoses in the mornings, and you’ll probably want to put on a jacket when you first go outside in the mornings.

A brilliant weather weekend for the Virginia City 100… which we did not do. Instead we trailered to Sand Canyon both days, one of my favorite places to ride when it’s cool!
You wind up sandy washes in a slow, gradual climb – good workout in the sand - twisting through sage and pinyon pines, part of it down in a gully lined with big boulders – ripe cougar perches! We’ve never seen any sign of cougars or bears out there, but, you never know! Today Raffiq was getting goosed from behind by the Horse Goose-Monster, and just in case, I turned around at regular intervals to make sure a cougar wasn’t loping along behind us.

No big beasts, but plenty of hornets – we’ve had a bumper crop of them this year (as have many other areas, including Smith Valley to the north, Greenville 200 miles to the NW where we did our ride last weekend, “all over the west” I’ve heard). We stopped to water the horses from our water bottles when we reached the top of the gully at the mining road we turn around on – and as soon as we stopped there were dozens of hornets around the horses. I was thinking it would be a bad idea to fall off your horse because you’d be swarmed and devoured by the hornets.

Arriving autumn means: departing job. Bummer! Is this my last season here? I never know, and I just don’t think about it, since there’s nothing I can do about IMO daft budget slashes. I’ve got 2 weeks left, or 6 weeks, or more… depends on how much extra work there is for me here, and that depends on when it snows and what else may come up afterwards in lands far, far away …

Stay tuned!

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Raven Rides Again

Monday September 11 2006

Another 100 miles for the Raven! Riding in my saddlebags on the 2-day Patriot’s Day ride in the northern Eastern Sierra mountains near Greenville, CA.

Patriot’s Day, we were reminded, was to honor those who lost their lives on September 11, and to honor patriots – patriots who speak out for and against their government, patriots who SPEAK OUT. Exercise your democratic rights, the ones we all have no matter your opinion. The ride also raised money for the Veterans Guest House in Reno, NV, which provides a home-away-from-home for families of veterans receiving medical care at the VA Hospital. A great idea, no?

Cold mornings, cool days (well, the second one came rather close to whiney-hot for me), climbing up and up logging roads (therefore, back down, down) scattered with lots of bear poop, through beautiful forests (well, where it wasn’t clear cut) of douglas firs, ponderosas, cedars, sugar pines, white firs, oak, with rays of sunlight streaming through the dust and leaves. I just knew for sure some of that was good spotted owl habitat, something I just know can’t be very popular in that area of logging communities! Great views from 6500’ over the surrounding valleys and big Lake Almanor. We passed a pretty reservoir in a meadow, a horse-eating waterfall, a great snack stop where the volunteer served the horses hay and humans cool thirst-quenching home-made lemonade and fruit.

Ride camp was a lovely private children’s summer camp, with complete horse facilities, dinners, big camping area, dining/meeting cabin, a ropes/climbing course, and a mini-petting zoo (they had a pig!).

Ride manager Kassandra led the group of riders out each morning on her patriotic horse - mane braided with red white and blue ribbons. Vet checks/lunch stops had plenty of food for the horses and treats for us humans. Awaiting us all after our days of riding: hoses to cool the horses (and real green grass to eat!), and showers!! And a swimming pool!!!!! Of course, the water was way too cold for me, but Gretchen enjoyed it so much she was hoping Raffiq would buck her off into the pool as we rode by it several times each day.

Gretchen and Jackie and I bombed right along the trail the first day. Day 2 we were all a bit more tired and slowed down. But that petite Fadrica I rode is a strong little thing – maybe 14.2 hands, and even small front to back so that she seems to have a smaller center of gravity to balance over. Meaning, I used my legs a lot to really hold my balance centered, and I felt it by the morning of day 2!

Alas, it was only 2 days of riding – would have been awesome to be a 4 or 5-day ride. (You’re also totally not-sore by the end of 4 or 5 days). It was a great time anyway, good riding, good horses, good time.

The Raven always has a good time, rain or shine, dust or wind, heat or cold. He’s got over 2000 endurance miles now. Maybe I should get him an AERC number…

Thursday, September 7, 2006

The Best Laid Plans...

Thursday September 7 2006

… for endurance riding have become all bungled up this summer.

With our ultimate goal being the 100-mile Virginia City ride in September, as part of Raffiq’s and Spice’s training we wanted to do a 2-day ride in June, but wimped out because of too-hot weather. The 75-mile ride we wanted to do in July was cancelled. Then Spice got a cough and the snots. But then she got over it, and seemed fine for the 50-mile Eastern High Sierra Classic and the next week’s 50 mile Tour De Washooo in August. But she colicked during the EHSC – first time ever – so we skipped the TDW and abandoned our quest for the Virginia City.

So the new plan was, if Spice seemed okay, we’d try the 2-day Patriot’s Day ride in September (the week before Virginia City), figuring a 1 or 2-day ride would be easier than the 100. Spice appeared to be fine… until she started coughing and snotting again. So that ride is out for Spice.

One of our favorite rides coming up is the 5-day Owyhee Canyonlands ride in Idaho… but this year it’s in September and I have to work.

That puts us into October, and we’d been entertaining the thought of the 5-day Grand Canyon ride… but I may or may not still be around here in October. If I am around here, I’ll be working, and I can’t do the ride anyway. There’s a 1-day ride and a 2-day ride in October as other alternatives… but since planning doesn’t seem to work this year, I guess we’ll just play it by ear.

What this all really boils down to is, I have only done ONE endurance ride this summer. Definitely not what I’d had in mind!

Now, at least, we’re borrowing a horse from Jackie and taking Raffiq to do the Patriot’s Day ride this weekend.

If I’m lucky, my raven and I will get 100 more miles under our girth!

Wednesday, September 6, 2006


Wednesday September 6 2006

I went out with the botany girls again today to do a plant survey up on Powell Flat, out in the middle of nowhere, repeating a survey done in 1979, using their old maps. It took us 2 hours to drive there – the last 45 minutes along a very rough and overgrown ‘jeep trail’ (yea, like maybe it was a jeep trail 25 years ago). After we parked, we had about an hour uphill hike ahead of us… but it was more like 2 ½ hours, because we followed the wrong canyon up the first time.

We finally got into the right canyon, and lo and behold, there was the faint trail mentioned from 27 years ago. Only thing was, Amy was feeling a bit sluggish from a week at Burning Man and no food at all to her name but a very sweet huge cinnamon bun, Laura was feeling a bit slow due to asthma, and I was feeling a bit wimpy from a long hike yesterday. So, we puttered along.

We passed over many bear tracks, and I am sure we were in cougar country, so I kept my eyes peeled up the canyon hillsides and behind us, though we saw no sign of cats. After an uphill hour, we made it up onto the flat. We surprised 2 huge bucks in the distance that took off like a shot, kicking up clouds of dust and never stopped running till they reached Yosemite. We came across many obsidian chips on the flats – a large historic or prehistoric Indian site.

A pleasantly cool day up top at about 9000’, with a few thunderhead-wanna-be clouds to the east, and a few plain ol’ rain clouds to the north. Being paranoid of lightning (for good reason), I watched those clouds closely, to make sure they bore no lightning. But they just dropped rain in the distance and fortunately didn’t turn threatening. And we’d checked the weather – no thunderstorms anywhere in the forecast.

My toe – the one I might’ve broken 7 weeks ago – was aching again; I guess I hiked over its limit yesterday and today. I had to loosen my shoe while I worked.

We worked swiftly through our survey, stopping only when we heard a couple of coyotes yipping and howling not a half-mile away. They were hidden in the sagebrush well – I couldn’t even pick them out with my binoculars, though they must have been right there. It stayed patchy-cloudy, dark rain clouds all around us now, even sprinkling on us a bit.

Just as we almost finished, it happened… thunder, out of the blue, right above us. We three looked at each other, startled, since we’d gone all day now with agreeable sprinkles here and there, and with no lightning or thunder. We continued packing up, when, BOOM – another rumble, this one with more serious intent, to our south.

When that happens to me – when I’m outside, exposed with no shelter, and that has happened to me FAR too frequently, that crack of thunder is like a shockwave of adrenaline and fear that cracks inside me. Then it thundered more seriously above and just to the north of us. Oh, shit. Forget the GPS point we wanted to take, just grab our stuff – including the metal stakes and my metal radio and the metal (or maybe it was aluminum) hole digger – and run for that canyon!

I wasn’t as scared as I’ve been in other lightning storms because so far, this one was not as wicked, but, I was still scared, and though I did not sprint for that canyon cleft off the flat, I ran, with Laura and Amy on my heels. We were about 300 yards from it. I always have time to think of things while I’m running scared from lightning. Things such as, man, I really need to get a will made out, and, things will really suck if someone gets struck, because we are at least 2 ½ hours from help. No radio contact, no way out but the way we came, on foot an hour to the car, and at least 1 ½ hrs by road before we might get radio contact.

Then Amy said “Oh, dear, look,” and over our shoulder, just over a ridge about ¾ of a mile away, a funnel of smoke rose up into the air – lightning must have struck something there.

Oh, shit. Giggling nervously, we ran faster! 100 more yards to the mouth of the canyon. We got there and we didn’t stop running until we dropped down in height quite a bit from the flat. Of course, lightning does not always strike the tallest object, but we still felt a little safer down lower.

A half-mile down the canyon, after we’d slowed down to an almost-normal fast walk, and in fact heard no more thunder, I realized I had forgotten about my toe hurting.

Funny what a little motivation will do for sluggishness, asthma, and pain!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go work on my will.

Monday, September 4, 2006

Close Enough to Perfect

Monday September 4 2006

I really can’t think of one thing that would have made this 3-day pack trip into Piute Cabin any better than it was. The weather was great, the horses terrific, the packing almost completely smooth (of course, I only led in Brenda the mule), the views superb, and, NO MOSQUITOES!!!

I rode Paiute and led Brenda, and my boss rode Zak; the reason I didn’t take the other 2 horses in also was because they were booked! With the new district ranger that rides, and encourages riding, she and the resources gal took Tom and Red Top to check on some grazing lands on the same day my boss and I packed into Piute.

This time of the year – just about fall – it’s so peaceful and quiet. The river is finally down, and there aren’t too many birds singing now – they are around, but just not so vocal as during nesting. Well, except for those zany Clark’s nutcrackers, (same family as ravens) that always seem to be into something important and very social and vocal about it. There was a beautiful half-moon at night over the edge of the meadow over Hawksbeak Peak.

Main goal at the cabin was to pull the rest of the downed and broken and irreparable barbed wire fence out of the meadow. Our horses are smart enough to not step over the wire – they still go out the gate, even with some of the wire gone – but any other horses could easily get tangled up in it. Getting all of that horse-hazard cleared out and rolled up and stashed away was not only pleasant with NO MOSQUITOES!!!!, it took a load off my mind that’s been there for years. Then we built a hitching rail, which has also been in pieces for at least 2 years – the snows can get pretty torrential up there.

Then we caught the horses to ride up to Kirkwood Pass – I say caught, but I can thank Brenda’s obsession with treats that brought her running at my whistle, and the boys followed her up and into the corral (which is also in dire need of repair). I led Brenda along the trail with us to sightsee because I couldn’t have left her by herself.

The trail skirted Piute Meadows at 8300’ with its view of Hawksbeak (I’ve climbed it) and Ehrnbeck Peaks, and started climbing… up and up to 10,000’. We moved along slowly, Paiute dictating the pace, stopping to catch his breath when he needed to. Tower Peak (I’ve climbed it) unfolds out from behind a smaller intimidating peak as you wind your way up. Most of these peaks are all over 11,000’ and are in some beautiful, rugged terrain, and some provide technical climbing, if that’s what you’re after. You could wander around for days, weeks, off the trails and never run into another human being. The day I climbed Tower Peak I happened to run into a guy coming down from it, and we talked for a few minutes. Tower’s a bit of a sketchy scramble near the top (especially coming down – you don’t want to slip), and that guy actually waited for me to make the summit, hang out a while, then safely climb back down off the technical part before he went on his way.

At the top of Kirkwood pass, you can look down Buckeye Canyon on the one side, and stare at Tower Peak and other high ridges and crests behind you. Brenda wondered what exactly was the point of the mission.

Back at the cabin in the evenings, while eating some simple but delicious meals (everything always tastes better in the backcountry after a good day’s work), I delved into some of the old ranger logbooks from the 80’s.

The first one is from 1981, kept by a first-time ranger Ric stationed at Piute cabin. On June 22 he wrote: “The cabin blew me away. I can’t believe it. It’s fantastic. I could live here and work the trails forever. This spot is beautiful. Unreal!”

On June 24: Wow!!! Just saw a huge bear in the meadow. Incredible! This is great!!!”

The young ranger worked and worked and overworked and overworked and stressed about all the work he couldn’t get to. A month later, he’s got ulcers – worrying about all the work that still needed doing up there – patrolling trails, mending fence, removing trash, destroying fire rings, trail maintenance. He had to take a few days off out of the backcountry to mend. Back at work, a month later he stepped in a hole and fell and twisted his ankle. He heard a snap, but didn’t think it was broken; he walked back to the cabin and thought he’d be okay. The next day he wrote, “They’re going to fly me out” – the “ankle may be broken.”

A penciled-in note from Tim, Piute ranger about 7 years later: “Around 1985, Lorenzo (Ric’s boss) told how Ric had been ‘going crazy’ up at Piute, Lorenzo saw him in town next day after being flown out, ‘striding around, no trace of a limp.’”

Sometimes it can be lonely working by yourself out in the backcountry, having to deal with any problems that come up on your own – weather, horses, wildlife, cows (the area was grazed back then), people, trash and more trash (why people think the forests are their personal trash dump is beyond me), work that never seems to get done. Some people love it and crave the time alone, and some people it gets to. It must have gotten to Ric, because that was his only season as a backcountry ranger here.

The next ranger was around for 3 years, and while he loved the work and the area (and didn’t care much for the cattle grazing, which trashed the areas they were in), he found – like many rangers and forest service seasonals – that the hours are long (not a bad thing), and the pay is minimal (not a good thing) and there’s never assurance you’ll get the job back next season.

In the new book The Last Season, the story of a 30-year veteran backcountry ranger in Kings Canyon Nat’l Parks who went missing, it’s talked about there too: the minimal salary, being on call 24 hours, little or no recognition. Sayings such as “Seasonals are treated like second-class citizens; they do most of the work and get the least recognition,” are still the norm 25 years later, but many of the seasonals still keep coming back because they just love their jobs.

Tim, the last Piute ranger, was there for some 12-15 seasons. Unfortunately, he took his logbooks with him, but I’ve had the privilege to read many of his entries. I kept my own journals of being on the trail crew, but they are hidden away.

I had a harder time catching the horses the next day we were to leave. As usual, they were at the far end of the meadow, and as usual, Brenda headed toward me at my whistle… but when the 2 boys didn’t follow, she stopped halfway. She let me halter her and lead her on to the corral, though we had to stop many times and look back at the naughty boys ignoring us and still grazing, and I had to convince her I really did have treats waiting for her in the corral. She let me lead her to the corral, but then I had to trek all the way back to the end of the meadow, where Zak let me catch him (I would have never caught Piute out there) and lead him back, with Piute following. Brenda was going nuts in the corral – between treat bites – until the boys showed up.

It was another beautiful high Sierra day packing out – cool, quiet, only a few hikers on the trail, and only one of my pack station buddies leading one mule up the trail. We had only one small glitch: we had to stop and unload and re-saddle Brenda because her saddle pad slipped back.

Now, last year, this was my albatross. This had never ever happened to me in all my years of helping with packing the forest service horses: last year, every 2 hours, like clockwork, Brenda’s saddle pad had slipped back enough to where I’d have to stop, tie up the string, unload Brenda, resaddle, reload, retie the string, and continue on down the trail – and stop after another 2 hours and go through the whole thing again. (It’s a chapter in my future book). I went to the pack station several times, got tips from the boys, once even had them saddle her – and the damn pad always slipped out from under her saddle after 2 hours. The one time I had to unload 4 40 pound cans of liquid from chest-height out of her panniers to resaddle her, I about left the load behind. Finally, my last pack trip out of that season, while resaddling her (after 2 hours), I flipped the saddle pad backwards – and it worked! The pad never slipped again on that trip, or my trip into Piute this time… until now. I thought I’d solved the Brenda-saddle-pad problem, and here, on our trip out, right at 2 hours, we had to stop and unload and resaddle her. Maybe it’s just Brenda’s mature 24-year-old physique that causes the pad to slip – who knows?

But that was our only hitch of the entire trip, and that wasn’t a big deal, because Brenda’s load was light, and it was just a beautiful day to be out packing in the Sierras.

Plans keep changing, but I hope to have at least one more pack trip into Piute with the horse clan this season!