Archive for November, 2022

NE OR SW?

November 26, 2022

11 p.m. somewhere on the southwest part of Isle Royale, the national park island out on Lake Superior.  I am with the first group of backpackers for the season, and 12 of us are scattered over 207 square miles of roadless wilderness.

It’s cloudy and dark, but the rain has stopped, and there is no wind at the surface in the forest. I hope my mag lite will keep working. I have seven miles in front of me to reach Windigo, where I can camp, unless my light quits and I have to make camp on the trail. Pitching the tent in the dark will be a joy.  Won’t be the first time I’ve done that; a late start on the AT in Carolina and I camped right on the trail in the rain. I’ve heard that moose bed down near the trail, so I’m bit concerned about that, but mostly I have other thoughts on my mind. 

The thoughts are about what started 4 hours ago. I had hiked 10 miles to the campsite on Feldtmann Lake on the remote corner of the island, my last night. After dinner, I hiked over to the lake shore, encountering a young bull moose maybe 10 feet away, far too close. I backed off and returned to the campsite, not going to bed, but lying on my sleeping bag, just relaxing. It had been a long day, and my back bothered me, because a strap broke on my new pack, and it wasn’t carrying properly. 

I heard some thumping outside the tent, where I was supine, shoes off, almost dozing. One more thump, I told myself, and I’m going out there.

Thump. I put on my shoes, opened the tent and looked in front of me.  Nothing. I turned around, and 12 feet away, separated by only air, was a fully grown wolf. 

“Oh. My. God. “ I said. What I was seeing had been for decades at the top of The List of things I wanted to see.  But like this?   The wolf and I stared at each other, and he slowly circled the campsite for the next 5 minutes, looking up at my hung pack. That was the thump I heard. He was jumping at it. Then, one second he was there, the next, gone. 

At the time, I intellectually knew there was no documented case of a healthy adult wolf attacking a person. That’s fine to know, but it means little when one is ten trail miles from the nearest person, it is about to get dark, where there was no reception even if one had a telephone, which I did not back then. No way I was staying there and—yes, admit it, getting eaten—so I packed up everything, and shortly before sunset through an overcast sky, was on the trail out of there at 8:45.

I thought it might be light enough in the woods, because it was May, and it stays light longer, but not in the middle of the forest on a cloudy night. The trail was easy to follow, and I only had to worry about moose that might bed down near it. I made decent time, despite my having already hiked ten miles and doing another ten. I was still excited about having seen a wolf in the wild, a long viewing far beyond my expectations, but a bit scary, too.

I approached a large jackstraw of logs in the middle of the trail and started to pick my way around them. The group was large, and I kept going around until I finally found the trail and started hiking normally again. A few minutes later, something didn’t feel right.  I’m analytical to say the least, and while I don’t pooh-pooh gut feelings, I like to have hard evidence. Then again, this evening, I went with my gut feelings and got out of that campsite. What I was feeling now was every bit as disquieting. 

Am I going back the way I came?

I generally have good trail sense, but I have gotten turned around before, remembering the afternoon in Carolina on the AT in ’99, when after resting, I started hiking again and after fifteen minutes encountered a road. There wasn’t supposed to be a road, I thought, about the same time I recognized a large rock near where I had encountered a snake an hour earlier. I had turned around and walked back the way I had come. I was so freaked out by my mistake, I ran probably a half mile back, continuing another couple of miles before making camp for the night. Yes, I can get turned around.

I was so seriously enough concerned about my situation that I took off the pack and opened the pocket where I kept the compass, something that I have almost never used on the trail. I always put the compass in, but I never really think I will need it. I needed it now in a big way, or I was going to be sleeping on the trail right where I was.  I took the compass out, didn’t worry about the declination correction, which wasn’t much anyway on Isle Royale, held the dial away from me.  I was on a long straight stretch of the trail leading now to Windigo, and I asked it one question: am I facing SW or NE?  The mag lite was in one hand, the compass in the other.

I can still see “SW” on the dial. I had turned around. 

I put the compass away, told myself I was stupid, but at least no longer lost, turned back around, and started hiking again. Sure enough, in about 10 minutes, I again reached the jackstraw, this time walking around and looking more carefully for the trail, which was there sure enough, heading NE. I eventually reached Windigo at 1:30 am and pitched the tent well enough to fall asleep on the lawn at the Ranger station. 

The next morning, I saw that I was about 50 feet from several 3-sided shelters, all of which were empty.

Pictures from Isle Royale (2006):

ROLLING THE ROAD

November 16, 2022

Last winter, I spoke with the Executive Director of Rowe Sanctuary in Nebraska, where I volunteered for a decade, leading well over a hundred trips to the viewing blinds.  I donate to Rowe, and every year the ED calls me to catch up for a few minutes. I know his family well; his daughter is almost exactly 50 years younger than I and now a biologist in the Deep South.  I first met her when she was ten. I do miss seeing the Sandhill cranes, teaching people about them, hearing the unique call from an ancient species, and viewing their migration is one of the top three events I’ve seen in nature (the other two were a wolf in my campsite on Isle Royale, and a total solar eclipse, of which I have seen 18).

At one point, the ED asked me what a “logout” was, which I had mentioned, without realizing it, several times. I explained it to him, although I didn’t delve further into the fact that the word may be used as a noun or a verb. We go to the woods in order to log out or cut out the logs blocking the trail (the verb form) the trail. On the last logout (noun, object of a preposition), I hurt my arm.  

I wasn’t using the term to impress, which as a newcomer I might, to try to show people I understood the work, when I really didn’t.  No, I used it automatically, because for the past 25 weeks, I had participated in at least one two man crosscut logout each week, sometimes two, spread out in five wilderness areas.  This work is a big part of my life, and so comfortable with the words that I didn’t realize they had two different grammatical forms until now.  

Learning the vocabulary of a new subject is an essential step en route to becoming competent. I would call it necessary but not sufficient. Learning the vocabulary takes time and effort; it can’t be pushed, and using the vocabulary before one has really lived or understood it brands one as a beginner, a layman, or otherwise not part of the group, unless, and this is important, one admits their newness at the outset. I know the vocabulary of medicine, but if I am explaining a skin problem to a dermatologist, I will preface my comments as, “I think it is one of those actinic thingies, or whatever you guys call it.” That means I am sort of using the language, but I admit to my ignorance. The dermatologist nods, smiles, and continues the evaluation. I told my urologist I couldn’t pronounce the generic name of the med I was on, only that it was an alpha-blocker, alfu-something or other. He laughed and told me what it was. 

In the Navy, I had to learn nautical language: I knew about knots, port and starboard, but I had to learn about deck, overhead, bulkheads, topside and below, reefers (refrigerators), scuttlebutt (water fountains), heads (bathrooms), wardroom, officer’s country, the difference between the 01 (oh-one) deck (first deck above the main deck) and the 1 (first) deck (first deck below the main deck), forecastle, after steering, CIC (Combat Information Center, or “Christ, I’m Confused’), snipes (engineers), pork chop (supply officer), First Lieutenant (head of the Deck Department), or dog down something (tighten it). For some, a gig is a side job; in the Navy, it has two different meanings; 1) the Captain’s personal boat (noun) that we carried, with an outboard motor, and (2) a verb that meant to discipline someone, often used in the passive voice. Nearly a half century after leaving the Navy, I occasionally will use gig, along with gundeck, which means one has accomplished a job when in fact one did nothing. Like certain words in other languages that describe things better than we have in English, Navy-ese still is used by me along with “scosh,” from “scoshi” or a little (Japanese), example: “Give me a scosh.”  

On a ride back from a logout a while back, I explained the injury I had suffered to my forearm when I slipped and slid down a rootball wad flat on my back, fortunately cushioned by my pack. My forearm immediately swelled, and I knew I had a hematoma. My explanation of it I later heard had the guy in back think that I had to be a physician, because I was talking so smoothly about something medical.

Having started at the bottom of many ladders in many fields (chemistry, medicine, statistics, medical administration, amateur astronomy, guiding canoe trips, learning a language, and now doing volunteer trail work), is that learning the vocabulary is the first big step towards competence. Pathology, which I took the second year of medical school, is where I really learned the vocabulary of medicine, even more than anatomy. The pathologist who taught the class said the first day, “This is where we turn medical students into doctors.”  Well, at least vocabulary-wise.

When I went to the canoe country to work, or to wilderness trails in the Cascades, I originally knew nothing about the work. I asked about strange words, like kerf (the opening in a saw cut), bind (where the saw is grabbed by the wood), leaner, buckskin (light brown log), or “how a log can talk to you,” for logs certainly have all of those characteristics. While knowing the vocabulary doesn’t make one competent, someone who neither knows the words nor pronounces them correctly stands out as a beginner, not to be ridiculed if the person is trying to work, but perhaps needs a slight toning down if they are trying to impress you.  I learned from an old timer, on a snowy drive to doing trail work one winter morning, that “to roll the road,” is to drive breaking down the sides of snow (or mud) that will form tire grabbing ruts if one doesn’t do that.

Little by little, through now eight-five logouts, the noun form, I have graduated from Apprentice, past Beginner, to some Competence, to Deal with more difficult logs, to Explain my work to others, and to Follow the Great masters whom I know. 

The route begins with learning the language of the field, asking questions, and showing up, for a large part of success is showing up. When I started, I thought a raker was an individual, not a piece of a crosscut saw that acts like a small chisel during sawing. I now speak the language, and while I will never stop learning, will neither be a C Sawyer nor an instructor, I have reached a skill level I never once dreamed existed, either in life, let alone for me.  

I’ve come a long way, far to go, but with good people who have “rolled the road” for me.

Layers

November 6, 2022

I noticed the cold for the first time this season when I got out of the car at Patjens Lake Trailhead. I had al- ready noted how dark the morning was when I left town, a predictable astronomical phenomenon for this time of year. Less predictable was when I would note the day each year, usually in August, when one felt the first tinge of autumn. I was doing a straightforward hike, a seven-mile loop into the Mount Washington Wilderness with a few hundred feet of elevation gain, scouting the trail in preparation for an upcoming one-day logout by the joint Scorpion-Salamander Scorpomander crews. I was expecting to find between 75 and 150 logs needing removal. Knowing the location and size of the logs would help the crews plan the day, as they worked the loop from opposite directions.

I had my rain jacket on when I drove in but had removed it before starting, knowing I would warm up as I moved. Af- ter all, it was I who told people at the onset of a hike, “If you’re warm now, you’ve got too much on.” People listened po- litely, nobody took anything off, and the hike proceeded, with my being the only one cold. It was only uncomfortable for ten minutes.

I learned this approach of starting a hike cold 38 years earlier on the Chilkoot Trail in Alaska. The second morning of that backpack, ten miles up the trail, it was cold, and the leader suggested I remove my shirt, because we were going to be carrying packs uphill all day, over Chilkoot Pass into Canada. When we stopped to rest, sweaty, we could put on a dry shirt and be warmer, until we started again. I was a ‘layer minimalist’ for years afterward, until my body changed.

Twenty years ago, I stopped wearing shorts when I canoe tripped in Minnesota in September; five years later, I stopped bringing shorts altogether. On winter trips, my fingers now are cold for the first mile in the morning and for the first mile right after lunch, too. Along with losing hair, vision, memory, and hearing, I’m losing degrees. The world changes; my body is no exception.

Now standing near the kiosk at the trailhead, pack on, ready to go, I stopped. Admit it, I said to myself. You’re cold.

I shook my head, dropped the pack, retrieved my jacket and put it back on. I don’t have to be cold right now. If I get too warm, I’ll deal with it. I then shouldered the pack and began hiking. My, it felt comfortable. Sure enough, a half mile into the burned area, when I needed to stop to measure the diameter and location of a downed log, I removed my jacket and stuffed it back in the pack. I was warm the rest of the hike, noting 79 logs for removal, in addition to the 13 smaller ones I removed as I went.

Those who are naturally comfortable in certain situations or subjects often have difficulty understanding others who don’t share or have such comfort or skill, whether it be interacting with strangers or dealing with the ambient temperature. But that day at Patjens, I finally understood and could admit that layers are for putting on and taking off, and it really doesn’t matter when one does what, so long as one is comfortable.

See you on the trail.

The above appeared in the Obsidian Bulletin November 2022. I was “commissioned” to write something after I followed up to a favorable comment about “Lunch Time,” which appeared in Cascade Chronicles (below). Readers of my blog will know of my strong belief that opportunities come disguised in many forms. As a Navy veteran, I have always liked the motto, “Fortune Favors Boldness,” the Cruiser-Destroyer Squadron motto.

Lunch time

Thirty years ago, when I was a summer volunteer wilderness ranger in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, I was so hungry that I downed a large Hershey Bar mid-morning out on the trail or water. In the interim, I have become a little healthier in my food choice, but I still like a mid-morning snack and may often be seen wolfing down a protein bar, either at rest, while hiking, or even sawing. Around 11:00, I start thinking “lunch is within an hour, I hope.” Sometimes it is earlier; sometimes we want to finish a log and it is later. Either way, I have a half hour where I can eat, often lying down, which I probably shouldn’t do but do anyway, and gaze at whatever is to be gazed at. 


There is much to see; I’ve spotted hawks, woodpeckers, nesting holes, squirrels, aircraft, the Moon, interesting tree shapes, and spider webs, the latter’s crisscrossing the forest at all sorts of angles and elevations. I listen to conversations around me for my mouth is too full to talk as I rapidly scarf down the modest five course lunch I made the night before.


Unlike group hikes, where we look for waterfalls to sit by or mountain tops with views, on a work day, lunch is where we are. On the Erma Bell log out, I was ahead of the rest of the crew when I was called on the radio asking for my position. I wasn’t exactly certain, and I wasn’t going to give a smart aleck answer like “near the county line,” which I once told dispatch at noon when we were working Hand Lake Trail (it was true). I said I was a few hundred yards ahead and would eat where I was. I had plenty of work ahead of me, but food is food, and I sat in the shade, watching ants, marveling at the deep blueness of the sky, and enjoying the quiet.


Lunch in winter is finding a sunny spot or a dry area under a big tree. I remember to bring a warm hat in my pack, because hard hats aren’t good insulators. I also keep lunch breaks shorter, because I cool off so rapidly. Summers, of course, I look for shade, which sometimes disappears, because I didn’t plan on the Earth’s rotation. I’m an amateur astronomer and should have factored that in, but when I am working the trail, I think of other things. Working the Middle Fork Trail several months ago, I sat on a thick pile of moss, my back against a log. It was so comfortable, but I realized that must be a one and done spot. My feet were in danger of kicking the moss, and it takes time for it to grow back. I worked in the same area several more times, but I never ate lunch there again, often on the bridge we were building, feet hanging over the edge, rushing water below.


We had a particularly good lunch spot working Rebel Creek, where we could sit on the trail, lean against the bank, let our legs drop over the edge, the creek far below, and I stared at one particular fir where it began far below and ended far above me. I bet I could find that same tree again. This past week, I led a crew to brush out Lowder Mountain Trail, and I timed it so we could have lunch on top, overlooking the Cascades as well as Karl and Ruth Lakes. The choice of lunch spot impressed a newcomer. Made my day.


Nobody formally calls an end to lunch. With varying degrees of stiffness, we get up, make needed adjustments to our gear, and move on. More work awaits us.