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!

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