Archive for the ‘UNPUBLISHED OUTDOOR WRITING’ Category

THE ONLY TIME IN MY LIFE I WAS A RINGER

June 12, 2020

I had forgotten about this event for a half-century.  Or I had repressed it.  Anyway, while I was doing my morning 5-mile walk through the park today, just having seen my thirtieth different wild flower species (a Golden Iris), I thought of how this would be a lost summer for the young men who were on the canoe tripping staff at Camp Pathfinder, Canada, where I learned to canoe trip, nearly 60 years ago. One only has a few years when one is strong, has time, is willing to and can work hard, get muddy, sunburned, wet, cold, bitten by bugs, and travel by pack and paddle through of the most beautiful country anywhere.  I took 25 trips all over Algonquin Park in 6 summers, paddled to South River Village one year and spent two weeks up in Temagami in 1964.

I don’t know what brought the memory deep out of my hippocampus, but this morning I thought of a canoe race I was in 54 years ago–my only canoe race, a two man one, international competition (after all, we were in Canada).  

We staff members at Pathfinder had days off, where we either had to paddle two miles to the car dock from the island camp, or if we were lucky, caught a power boat.  Once there, it was 2-3 miles to the Park Road, and then we hitchhiked into Huntsville, about 40 miles away.  We did our laundry, had ice cream, great food (although it was great at Pathfinder, too, and lots of it), then had to retrace our route back to camp. One night, I went to the local night club at Hidden Valley, a nice hangout, which was still there in 2013 when I came through.  Back then, if one went to H.V., it would be a real late night getting back to camp. Somehow, we all did.

One weekend, and my memory is obviously very flawed, considering I hadn’t thought of this event since LBJ was president, Justin W. and I were approached by I believe the mother of two boys at the camp.  She was a rich socialite.  Her name would be immediately recognized in the clothing industry if I wrote it, but she wasn’t the story.  Justin and I were.  There was to be a canoe race on a lake nearby.  It may well have been Lake Muskoka, but all I remember was a big lake with powerboats.  Justin and I were handed paddles and a canoe, and I can’t remember if we wore PFDs.  We probably didn’t, because back then we thought we were immortal, rather than teenagers.

Justin and I weren’t great friends, and that summer, he was a loose cannon, one day holding on to a rock formation along the park road, head slumped over like he had hung himself. Cars stopped and people actually got out to check on him.  He was lucky he wasn’t cited by the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police).  He was a strong guy, so he took the bow for power, and I stayed in the stern for steering.  I can’t remember the number of canoes, but there were several but probably fewer than 10.  The water was calm, and when the gun went off, we exploded into a fury of foam, power, and testosterone.  Justin was amazing. Normally, I can overcome most bow paddlers from the stern, but he was giving me everything I could handle, and I didn’t want to waste anything on steering if I didn’t have to. My arms were aching like they never had ached before or since. I think the race was about a half mile, certainly not more than a mile.  

We won comfortably, but not a blowout.  Thrilled, we headed back to shore, arms quivering from the effort, but heads held high, very proud of ourselves.

Here is the part I don’t remember.  At first, I thought the camp leaders were present on shore and we had to leave, but a day later, my memory had changed a little. It turns out that thinking about something changes it neurologically, just like observing something in nano space changes it, too.

I think Justin and I got the trophy.  I think so, because I have a vague memory of our having come back to camp with it.  

Briefly.  

Because I also remember, and this memory is fairly clear, that we were not going to keep the trophy, and I have a vague recollection of giving back the hardware.  

How I wish I could remember this, and now as an old adult, wonder what in the world had been going on with the socialite and the canoe race.  I do remember our being told that we had no business being in that race.  That was before the term “ringer,” but today someone would say that she brought in a couple of ringers to win the race.

Today, we recognize a ringer as someone who shows up for a pick up sport who played for a Division I NCAA school. In basketball, he dribbles through your legs and you wonder what happened. If you shoot, he blocks and you have a leather sandwich. 

Justin and I talked about the race only briefly afterwards.  I remember his saying that we were racing against trappers and real woodsmen, and we beat ‘em all.  Thinking back, I wonder if the competition was a bunch of middle aged guys with beer bellies who couldn’t tell a J-stroke from jaywalking, or thought the bow was something you did after a good performance.  But I like to think we beat tough competition.  Of course, today, there would be video and posting on Instagram or Facebook, but back then it was a lot better, because we could make up a better story, sort of like I am doing here.

The following year, 1967, was my last at Pathfinder, and I was head man on four canoe trips.  I thought it was only two, but years ago, Pathfinder put them all on line, and I found my name as “Mike Smith in charge” four times. I decided to check on the trip I had with Justin. I went on Pathfinder’s Web site and found the trip about a minute later. Bless the guy who did this; what a great service to past canoe trippers.  There it was, a two day 12-man trip to McIntosh and Brûlé lakes, a loop I had forgotten about, and which I had mixed up with my last trip that year. On August 7, Justin was second man to me on that trip with four staff, four canoes, 12 men, the Blackbear-Ink portage, my first time over the miler, and the 1 mile Nature Trail portage which I would carry again four days later on my last trip as a staff man, and not again for 46 years, when I carried a canoe over it on a day trip.

Without putting it down.  I texted my wife, saying something like “That mattered.”  She texted back an eyeroll icon with “if you say so.”

The trip Justin and I took was for one purpose: to get every camper still in camp out of camp for one night so the staff could have a break.  That time of year, the long trips were underway, and the camp had fewer kids present. We took the last 8, along with four trip staff.  These guys weren’t into canoeing, but we got them out and back, and Justin was superb. He made sure there was no nonsense, and he helped the third and fourth men on the trip as well.  Nobody swamped, I checked the box “No” on the return where it asked, “Was there any profanity on the trip?” (not until the first portage, anyway) and  the staff had a great night alone in camp.

I gave Justin an AAA, the top rating, for the trip.  He told me he didn’t deserve it. I assured him that his presence was valuable.  He was great. I wonder if we spoke of the canoe race. We probably didn’t.  Too bad.

I’ve got to send in a donation to the Algonquin Campership Fund for Pathfinder. And I think I will send this to the current owner.  Maybe he can give me more information on the great race. Or be glad he wasn’t around when it took place.

I’d never add that trophy to go with winning the 5-10 hp power boat race on Honeoye Lake in 1960, and a bowling trophy at Clover Lanes in 1963, which was still there, too in 2013, but closed in 2016 to make way for Whole Foods.  I got a clock for winning my age group in the 2nd Annual AAN (American Academy of Neurology) 5 km run in 1992, but that and the other two were national events.

I’m still undefeated in international canoe race competition.  

The author back again in a red canoe.. Camp Pathfinder canoe dock; August 2013. Note the red neckerchief I am wearing

Day trip to Little Island Lake (and others). Author in blue shirt in back. I camped at this site nearly a half-century earlier.

THE JOYS OF CURIOSITY AND COUNTING

April 25, 2020

I miss hiking.  I miss snowshoeing, my last one five weeks ago now, when I soloed into Arrowhead Lake in the Diamond Peak Wilderness with nobody out there.  I knew I would not be going any time soon, and I fondly remember that special day.

Snowshoe tracks on Arrowhead Lake, Diamond Peak Wilderness March 2020

I am fortunate enough to be able to go out and walk, and nearby Alton Baker Park, straddling Eugene and Springfield, has miles of trails in meadow, oak savannah, and riparian zones.  I  cross Alton Baker to get to stores by the UO, and I’ve walked the entire 16 mile river bank loop on both sides.  Occasionally, I do a loop from Knickerbocker Bridge to Autzen Bridge and back through the park coming home.  It is about 4 miles and goes along the Willamette and then the canoe canal.  For the first week, I did my usual walks that I had done before.  

Then I decided to add more distance, going further downstream to the deFazio Bridge.  Because it is spring, I started counting the number of different wildflower species I saw.  I have a good app from the brother of noted trail writer William Sullivan.  For the past two years, I have used the app and a few other books to identify well over 150 species of wildflowers on my hikes over the course of the season.  I almost hit 200 last year.  In the park, I could usually hit 20, and one memorable day got near 30.  

Mind you, many of the wildflowers are weeds, but many of them are pretty, and I’m a non-native here, too.  I started by walking through a neighborhood over to the parking lot by Autzen stadium, past Cuthbert Amphitheater, where I have seen a couple of concerts, down to the duck pond, and the center of the 1 to a billion solar system model, and then upstream along the river to Knickerbocker Bridge and back home.  It is somewhat more than 5 miles and fairly quiet.  There are interesting birds, too.  Two of us are making an analemma at local noon throughout the year near where the big “Sun” is. I get to see rushing water leave the duck pond to go to the Willamette, then the Columbia, and finally the Pacific.  Or the atmosphere.  

But I couldn’t have imagined what I was going to see in the way of flowers.

With wildflowers, like birds, or stars, observing is quite simple: you look, if you don’t know what something is, you try to find it in a book or ask somebody, and eventually, if you see it a lot you know what it is, and after a while know its habitats. What you need is curiosity more than anything else, and I was lucky enough to have a lot instilled in me when I was a kid.  It ranks up there with reading as one of the greatest gifts I’ve received.  In Tucson, I did birding on my neighborhood walks, being called the Bird Man, and 20 species in a day was great.  The Christmas Bird Count included my neighborhood, and then I would push 30 species. I found that telling the difference between a pyrrhuloxia and a female cardinal was easy, whereas earlier I thought it impossible.  Verdins had different calls, depending on the time of year; we had rock wrens in the neighborhood and I heard an occasional canyon wren, in addition to the ever-present cactus wren, the state bird. I am very auditory; I remember people by their voice rather than their face, and I do birding the same way. I may not see a spotted Towhee, but I sure can tell when I hear one.  Lately, however, I have been spotting them more easily.  It’s practice and knowing what to look for.

Two weeks ago, I saw twenty species of wildflowers on a walk for the first time this year.  As I walked through the neighborhood, I saw a non-native pale blue violet growing outside someone’s yard.  By Autzen Stadium, I saw my first California poppy, and by the Science Center I saw the first camas of the year, a lovely five blue petaled plant.  I found a stretch near Frohnmeyer bridge where within 100 yards there were over 20 different species. I saw Hooker Fairy bells and realized the past couple of years I had misidentified a Woodland buttercup.  I went nearer the river and saw a Money plant, 4-pealed pink flowers. Larkspurs and Plumed Solomon seal were everywhere, along with Trilliums and Fringe cups.  Someone picked an Iris that I needed for my count, but a week later two more sprouted.  Near them were a cluster of Fawn lilies.   I learn more each year from the mistakes I have made.  Last year, I learned about salsify flowers, this year, I realized there were three kinds of geraniums with different sizes and leaves. I am picking up on grasses, too.  A few days later, I hit thirty species and ended the day with about 35. I figured that would be the top number. 

Camas

The app is great: I open it, make sure I have the right part of Oregon, the right week, and the right elevation. That decreases the flowers to about half, or 1800.  Wildflower (vs.  conifer, other tree, grasses, etc.) color, number of petals, size of blooms, whether leaves are alternate, opposite, apical or basal, the environment (Disturbed, alpine, rocky, riparian) bring the numbers down often to a dozen, sometimes to three or four. Then I can look at a map, read the description, and see if this is the plant.  

As the weather got sunnier, the counts rose.  I hit 40, then 45, and even 48, getting a sow thistle, Persian speedwell, and yellow oxalis in the last 20 yards, when I wasn’t expecting anything. That’s the other thing about observing; you have to always hope there is something there and at the same time be happy just to be looking and seeing what is there. Sort of like fishing.  I identified a Torlinga crabapple tree, then looked at my feet where I was almost standing in a patch of Lesser Periwinkle.

Today, I was musing how the single dogwood blossom I had seen for the past week had finally gone. For whatever reason, I looked up, which apparently I had not done, being more interested in ground blooms. There above me the whole tree was abloom. Fabulous.

Dogwood

A lot of times, I need to try different colors of the petals to make sure I am not missing something else.  I don’t identify everything but close to 90%.  I write them down when I get home and count them when I am out there.  I count a lot of things, always have, every day, often without thinking and often without knowing what I will do with the counts.  I watch the birds, too.  The other day, a Canada goose landed on the duck pond. As he landed, his feet extended and briefly, he was skimming the water like a water-skier, minus tow rope.  I had never seen that before.  There is a lot of interesting stuff in nature, but one has to look, and it helps if one both knows what one is looking for and at the same time, have the joy of looking for its own sake. One memorable morning in Nebraska, dancing cranes made the whole Platte River bounce for about 2 seconds.  I saw it myself.

https://michaelspinnersmith.com/2018/04/09/the-morning-the-platte-river-danced/

Canada geese young

This past week, I topped 50, then 52, reaching 56.  Some wildflowers are starting to fade. Oregon grape will be gone soon.  Someone picked the iris and the salsify, but I found another salsify near the river and two new irises have appeared.  The Wild roses are blooming now, and one of the plants I could not seem to identify turned out to be Miner’s lettuce.  That gave me 57 for today. And it was raining.

I’m looking forward to what I hope will be a chance to go back up Spencer Butte and this summer into the high country.  Trail work also means a chance to see new wildflowers.  But I am so happy I started looking where I hadn’t looked before.  

It’s remarkable what one sees.

Ladybug on English plantain
Fawn lilies
Plumed Solomon’s seal
Hooker Fairy bells
Red Columbine

DAYSRUNTOGETHER

April 7, 2020

As I began to write this, Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, asked for a nationwide draft of doctors and other health care workers.

Ah, the draft.  I was number 56 in 1969; one brother was number 139; the other was a staff sergeant in the Marines at Da Nang. I ended up going to medical school, joining the reserves there, then spending two years’ active duty aboard the ‘Lou, the USS St. Louis (LKA-116), with two deployments to the western Pacific and having seen just about every country that bordered the Pacific north of the equator.  Just about.

The draft ended in 1973, so if I had not joined, I never would have had the experience of being a medical officer in an organization where medicine was not the top priority.  It had to be that way in the military, but ultimately that was the reason I left. But I never regretted my service. Not once.

In the interim, I have often wanted a draft, and we likely would have been a lot more cautious about entering conflicts if we had one.  A lot of young men—now women—need a time in their lives when they have to follow orders.  A big reason we got out of Vietnam was that everyday America was taking part in the war. People in the military weren’t heroes then, other than the real ones who got “The Medal” or one of the Stars. When I returned home, nobody spat on me, but nobody treated me any differently, either. I was just a young man in the military.  Just about everybody had to do it, unless they had bone spurs or some other often minor condition.  

It was a couple of decades later before Veterans Day actually had meaning for me.  I realized I was a veteran, not something that had often occurred to me for at least 15 years after my service. Really.  

Now we are in a pandemic, with doubling times of deaths recently in the 3 day range, starting to lengthen now to 4-5 days, having doubled 14 times total as I write this, with only four more doublings before we hit 100,000.  You can see why 200,000 (one more doubling after that) is on the table. And NYC needs help, badly.

From what I see and hear, there are times I am tempted to pull out my old bag and go to volunteer, since I doubt there will be a doctor draft any time soon.  Even as out of date as I am, I could certainly screen, talk to families, answer calls (with my upstate New York accent), help with intubations, and probably a few other things.  

But that’s more romantic—and a lot crazier—than reality.  I would likely get in the way, probably get sick, not unlikely become a ventilator candidate, which I would refuse, and die alone, my last days becoming part of the problem I wanted to help, 3000 miles from home.  I’d rather do it here, but as of this writing, we have had our 10th doubling for cases (1024) and our doubling time is about six days. That doesn’t mean we can’t have a huge outbreak by June, but the doubling time is gradually lengthening. Our growth factor (new/prior day) is often under 1, which is good.

I’ve never been a hero, and I am not about to be a martyr, either.  We need to have a solid volunteer corps where people can immediately go to where they are needed, starting close to home. I might be good talking to families who want information.  When I practiced, I did not shy away from talking to families of dying patients.  I didn’t like it a good share of the time, I certainly didn’t get paid extra for it, but that was my job, and I made sure I did it.  I’ve been on both sides of the white coat, and I know how important it is to actually speak to a doctor about an ill family member.  But I doubt anybody will be interested. I am good at knowing when care is futile and when there is no ethical reason to continue, but many others know that just as well and are current.  

That leaves me one other spot on the left coast: the USNS Mercy. After all, I once served on a ship.  I know how to enter and leave one (if not in uniform one faces aft, where the flag is, then one faces the officer of the deck and requests permission to come aboard.) I know the numbering system on board, so if something is deck 2, frame 46, I know it is two decks below the main deck, port side and up forward to frame 46.  This is not rocket science.

I would have a place to stay, no worries about commuting, would be available for all sorts of duties.  After all, that stuff is not easily forgotten.  My hair is short, I line up my buttons with my zipper, I can say “Sir” easily, and most of all, I have this skill.

The Navy wants no COVID aboard the ship. That is impossible.  It will happen. And I recognize that.  But with hundreds of thousands of retired military in southern California, my ending up on the Mercy is not going to happen.

So, the days run together. I have lengthened my morning walk from 3 miles to 5, much along the Willamette River, which is flowing well if a bit low from another dry winter.  I wear a mask now—just a balaclava, so long as the mornings are cold—and count the number of wildflower species I have seen.  I hit 23 today, which is good for this time of year in a limited habitat. The towhees are zzzzttting, the scrub jays calling, with an occasional Steller being seen, cormorants are on one of the river islands, herons are close by, and there aren’t a lot of people out there.

It’s a good time for those few of us who dislike crowds.  I feel sorry for those who can’t be in large groups, especially because life may change after Covid.  I don’t know whether I will ever tutor again in person; I won’t be carpooling to the high country for hikes or for work parties on the trails.  But I spent my first year here not carpooling, and lately, I have been hiking alone, rather than with the Club.  Those are my best hikes, my best snowshoes.

Up in the high country, it will be quieter this year. The new requirements for trail reservations at some of the busier trailheads are not going to be rolled out as soon as planned. The trails may get a rest from the crowds this summer.  I worry about fire season, but if few are in the high country, that removes a large risk.  

Coming home after my walk, I spend time checking the numbers of the epidemic, seeing if I detect any changes. I also do some algebra problems on line and go to zooniverse and pick a couple of projects to help out,  My lap is open for a couple of the lap cats.

I would love to help, and maybe I will get a chance to, but unless things hit the fan big time here, I am best suited to take care of myself and be one less problem, one less case.

Milton’s Sonnet 19:

“…“God doth not need

” Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best 

 “Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state 

” Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed 

 “And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest: 

 “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

English Daisies
Following the CDC (a huge disappointment overall in these times) guidelines. Elections matter.

BEING SOOOO OUT OF DATE

March 29, 2020

In my daily analysis of Covid-19 statistics, I went to a twitter feed by Marc Lipsitch of Harvard, a leading epidemiologist.  I almost became an epidemiologist rather than being a statistician.  I thought at the time that statistics was more appropriate for my math background, but epidemiology might have meshed better with my medical background. It would have been more helpful now.  I probably would have found work as an epidemiologist back then, too, although maybe I wouldn’t have written as much, and maybe I wouldn’t have gone to so many wild places in this country.

Anyway, I never used Twitter, which is my first Luddite confession. I can go online to Twitter feeds without dealing with the rest of the platform.  I haven’t missed it, either. That is sort of how I look at my past.  If I have regrets, I am sorry, I missed something.  If I have no regrets, then so be it.  I look at Twitter feeds online with meteorology, climate change, and now Covid.  Those people are smart, really smart. I wish they would be heard. 

From Lipsitch, I went to a data group about Covid, where they welcomed new people.  I was interested, since I have what I thought were a few data skills, so I clicked on and saw a list of people who gave their skills. 

OMG, I was immediately over my head. I had never heard of Python, at least the non-slithering kind, and at least two-thirds of the recipients (I count that sort of stuff, but it’s kind of low tech) had machine learning, AI (Artificial Intelligence), and a host of other skills I clearly didn’t have. I realized that I was so far out of my league that I left the site.  I then looked at python online and realized that I could probably learn it, but why would I want to at this stage?  First, I need to survive this virus, which at may age is about an 86-95% probability, maybe less because of gender, maybe more because of my current health.  Second, I have done fine the last nineteen years after grad school without doing this.  I never even learned the new statistical program “R,” which was called “old” on the python web site.

You know you are old when the things you didn’t learned when they were brand new are now considered old, and you still haven’t learned them.  

I have gone from being a guy who counts everything in his life and does mental arithmetic for kicks to a has been in the field of data analysis.  If the economy totally meteor craters I am out of luck for any data analyst job.  Nobody wants a guy who as a kid updated batting averages every Sunday from the results on Saturday, doing it by long division. Or can multiply two digit numbers by two digit numbers every time he sees them—during a conversation without missing a beat.  If you have ever talked to me, there is a good chance I once did that. Scary, isn’t it?  

On the other hand, I got back to being me.  I have the data from China, Italy, Spain, Germany, Iran, and the US, and I am checking the UK and Netherlands, too.  I was doing doubling time analysis before I read about them online.  I didn’t need the graphs; I could visualize what the data were doing. I could look at long strings of numbers and decide what ratios I needed to look at: Deaths to Cases, Deaths to Recoveries, doubling time of cases, deaths, daily changes, where a country was on its curve.  It’s not like these statistics are the final word—deaths to cases is definitely NOT a mortality percentage because of lag time—but the change in them is useful.  My watch altimeter I hike with isn’t accurate, but the absolute change is accurate and exceedingly useful.  

So, my data skills and a few bucks will buy one a medium, hot, decaf white chocolate mocha with almond milk at Dutch Brothers, where they know me at the Franklin Street kiosk, but they don’t take cash right now, and I would have to walk up to the drive-in window if I want anything these days. I go by on my 4 mile loop every day.

Italy is slowly seeing the doubling time increase. That’s easier to comprehend than the percentage rise is dropping each day.  While true, it is the first derivative of the curve, and a decrease of something that is increasing confuses people.  Lengthening doubling time doesn’t.  I read a lot, I look at good graphics, which I am not good at creating myself, I do my own poor ones, and because I lost my calculator, I am doing it with a phone calculator until I get a new one.  Heck, last week, when I was having trouble getting back to sleep, I was doing logs in my head.  I got them right.  I made a prediction of the world cases and deaths for the next day and was within 500 for both of them.  

While I can’t do data analysis that will help save the world from this pandemic, I can keep myself busy looking at the data, comparing my conclusions to others’, and when it is all over, go back to tutoring math, explaining things to people who need someone competent  who can do that.  After more than 60 years, I can qualify as that person for at least some things.  The community college has had me for six years, and they still want me.

No, I don’t have Vimeo on my computer, I tried DropBox, and it was a pain, so I don’t use it. I left Oovoo and I haven’t used Viber in years. I still use WhatsApp and Telegram, I can’t make sense out of the Safeway app, and probably a third of the apps on my phone I haven’t used in months, if ever.  

I’ve got a meeting on Zoom next week with the Cascade Volunteer board. A month ago, I had never heard of it.  Should be interesting.  

Cherry blossoms
Great Blue Heron nests

ETHICS AND OTHER THOUGHTS IN THE ERA OF SOCIAL DISTANCING

March 24, 2020

I was one of the first hike leaders in the Club to lead a group hike after the world changed, and I appear to be the last for awhile.  We normally do a Wednesday hike up Spencer Butte, meeting as a group at the bottom, and hiking up 3 miles with 1400’ elevation gain.  Several usually walk up together, although I go ahead if I can, using the hike as both conditioning time and as alone time, unless I end up being the Pied Piper with several breathing down my neck behind me but not passing.  I hate that.

Last snowshoe before I left the high country for quarantine. Arrowhead Lake, Diamond Peak Wilderness, Pacific Crest Trail.

Anyway, social distancing comes naturally to me, since I have always been one of those who stands in a corner at a party, assuming I even go to one.  As hike leader, I started by having the sign up sheet in my control, the bag for money several feet away on the ground ($1 per person), and as people came to sign in, I signed them up myself, had them drop the dollar in and start up the trail.  I went last, which worked worked well.  At the top, I had to dodge a couple of children who were running around and ask a few hikers to leave the larger group which had congregated up there. It’s difficult for many to avoid being close to another person.  I’ve seen it in camping, where people camp near me despite having a lot of area to use, and in parking lots, where they park next to me when there is more room elsewhere.

On the way down, I was last, but I saw the front group too close together following one another.  This is a bad habit on the trail, especially during this time. The Butte gets a lot of use, and somebody trying to pass a large group (it was once 18) has difficulty doing it when the front two are taking their time, and the people in the back just join in the parade.  I’ve not been able to change that. I got back to the trailhead and left.

Later, I got a text from someone telling me the coffee shop was open.  I didn’t answer.  On the trip description, I told people what they did after the hike was their business.  I should have been more forceful, recommending people not go to the coffee shop.  That seemed obvious to me, but we are in a new era: right now, get food, medicine, or exercise.  That’s it.  Not socializing. 

Pandemics have bookended both ends of my life.  I remember dimly the polio ones of summers when I was a young boy; my brother caught it. Now I am old and have another RNA virus to worry about.  

I walk daily in Alton Baker Park, where there are dirt and paved paths close together, the former for only pedestrians.  The problem is that I see pairs of pedestrians, not likely living together, walking maybe 3 feet apart, leaving no space for me. If one doesn’t move behind the other, so I can pass, I have to step off and waiting or even going to the asphalt trail. It’s one of the few times I am less annoyed about unleashed dogs.

The suddenness at which I changed surprised me. On 10 March I tutored at the community college, only wiping down the desk, with close contact with several students. The next day, I went to a meeting with the board of the Cascade Volunteers, feeling a little uncomfortable in the room, sitting about 3 feet away from anybody else.  Thursday, I did trail work, but two of us drove ourselves; others still carpooled. That day, 12 March, the world changed. Friday, I called in to the community college, saying I wouldn’t be coming. I went shopping that night, deciding not to wait another 12 hours, but I was what I would consider now “sloppy.”  Between my age and my sex, I am high risk.  I will not likely qualify for ventilator support should we run low on them. I am 14 days since the last time tutoring, 13 days since the last meeting, 4 days since I went to the UPS store. Counting to 14 matters a lot these days.

Upper Trestle Falls, Brice Creek, Umpqua National Forest. Trail work doesn’t mean one never sees anything; I had my lunch here that day repairing trail away from the group.

Counting the doubling time of cases and deaths matters, too. Increasing the doubling time is a quantitative way to see if we are flattening the curve.  The number of cases in the US is doubling a little more than two days, although some of that is on the basis of more testing finally being done. I am watching doubling times carefully, because it is easy to do, and Increase Doubling Time is a quantitative way of Flatten the Curve. 

Exponential growth doubling time per unit time is easy to learn. Divide 70 or 72 (easier to work with) by the time it takes to double, and one has the growth rate in per cent.  Doubling every two days is a growth rate of 35%; Spain is at 4 days (18%). 

Another way to look at it is that 29 consecutive doubling times are more than the US population, and right now we are between the 15th and 16th doubling times (32768 and 65536).  At a continued rate every two days, in less than a month the whole country would be infected.  If we push the doubling time back to 4 days, we would have closer to two months, same number of cases, but twice as much time to care for them, have more equipment, maybe have some anti-viral treatment.

I have a daily routine right now, and I was happy to see astronaut Scott Kelly suggest that. I learned last night that we can still exercise, so long as we stay apart from people.  My park is perfect for that.  I can walk four miles every morning, the hyacinths, Persian speedwells, wild cherries, and Oregon grape are in bloom.  The song sparrows call; the redwing blackbirds are building nests. A Great Blue heron is at the canoe canal.  Several are nesting upstream.

I just want to get through this time. My wife, the cats, a routine, math, and nature are all a big part of it.  

Riley, adopted from the Humane Society about 18 months ago. We kept the name.

OPEN SCHEDULE AND AT PEACE

March 15, 2020

Last Thursday, I went with the trail crew to work the Clark Nature Trail over in Fall Creek.  Half the crew would be doing puncheon work with the Forest Service crew; the rest of us would do grunt work on the trail.  That was fine by me. I have become more and more comfortable doing trail work, widening trails, removing rocks, closing trails, diverting them. 

We met at the Shell station south of town for our “tailgate season” where we discuss what we will be doing, specific safety hazards and review general safety behavior.  Normally, we then divide up into vehicles to carpool to the trail head, but this time I said I would be driving myself.  I had decided to do that two days before; I didn’t want to ride in close contact to several others. I wasn’t the only one doing this in a group of 60 and 70 year-olds. 

At the trailhead, we had another tailgate session with the Forest Service and a specific discussion of the job we were to do. Several of us started by each picking up a 4 by 4, about 9 feet long, and we had to carry it through the woods uphill a half mile to the work site.  That is a cubic foot of wood, and it was heavy. I hoisted mine and was last in the group heading out.  I wasn’t sure how long I could walk without having to take a break, but I found that by stretching my right arm out along the wood ahead of me, it was like carrying a canoe.  

I stayed in the back of the group, but about half way there, the person ahead of me set his 4 x 4 down to change arms.  I told him I was passing, so I wouldn’t get hit by his wood, went around him and then kept on to the top. It wasn’t a competition, but I wanted to get to the top without stopping, and I did.  I walked back down to the bottom, got a second 4 x 4, and did the same thing.  After that, we did trail work in the mud, making a new trail and closing off an old one with nearby downed branches and logs. We made a small stream diversion, filled in holes from past posts, and pulled out a fence post deep in the ground.  It was a pleasant day in the woods among the pioneer violets, trilliums, snow queens, running streams, giant trees, Pacific wrens and spotted towhees. 

Before leaving that afternoon, I talked with one of the other guys, very experienced from working years for the Park Service.  He is about my age, has had cancer, and drove alone, too.  Neither of us was scared of the coronavirus, but we both knew that we needed to be cautious.  In the woods that day, the outside world had changed.  When I left that morning, many things were still planned, I had  a schedule with some things I needed to do.  When I returned, the stock market had plummeted again, basketball was over, baseball too, my trip to Nebraska in April was cancelled, Forest Service meetings I was to go to, scheduled for next week, became virtual, It was a different country, almost the way it was after 9/11, 1/28/86, or 11/22/63.

I was asked if I were panicked.  I answered no, and I’m still not.  I am at peace. My schedule is empty. I don’t have to get up earlier for anything, although I will still do trail work if I can.  I lost money on plane reservations that I can’t keep, but I am not trapped on another continent or a cruise ship in quarantine.  Or worse, sick. At least not yet. I won’t be tutoring in person, but I can do it online. I can still snowshoe and hike. I am concerned, yes.  Three days ago I was tutoring in the math lab.  Two days ago, I was at a meeting, but I sat separately from others. A week ago, I had two long distance trips planned. Now, I have none.

I read how retired physicians might be able to help.  I am not sure what is meant by help, in that we are at high risk by age and many of us have additional risk factors for severe or fatal illness.  Aside from liability issues, it seemed obvious that prolonged close contact to sick patients led to more severe illnesses among medical workers. Now, if they wanted to have my ideas on system design, that would be fine, but only if we did it by telemetry. 

I want to be one less person who needs to be tested, brought to a hospital, given supportive treatment, and adds more stress to the medical care system. Our hospitals are not geared for this, and nor is our national system, if one can call it that. We got hit with a bad virus that was certainly predictable, if not knowing when. If not a virus, an earthquake would have stressed the system in some areas.  But when one is working to make a profit, getting the right patient mix, advertising, minimizing costs wherever possible, usually by limiting personnel, and asking first about insurance and second what is wrong with the patient, there can be no room in such a system for idle beds, idle machines, or idle people. I suspect many hospitals are near full capacity without coronavirus.  If they haven’t been, they are likely to soon go under.  When everything depends upon workers staying healthy, nothing going wrong, a pandemic is going to be a disaster.  The system is taxed with routine care; here where I live, it is overtaxed and medical issues of the population require month long waits. It is sort of like Canadian care that people complain about.  It isn’t like there is a lot of elective surgery that can be cancelled to free up beds; there is plenty of emergency and necessary surgery, requiring ventilators, every day.  

Many have resisted increased public support of medical care or public health because they aren’t affected by certain conditions.  I’ve long said that each of us is subject to a cancer, a ruptured aneurysm, a drunk driver, or a mutation.  Now, we have an example where any of us can become ill.  Each of us is subject to a virus that has a significant likelihood of killing us. Good public health helps all of us, yet public health has had its budget cut severely in the last decade.  For each dollar spent, public health delivers far more value than any other branch of medicine.

So, as I do the some of the things I like outdoors, hope I won’t be quarantined on the basis of age, or fall ill, I am at peace.  Nothing major to do tomorrow. No big trips on the horizon, no meetings, just a lot of reading, maybe a snowshoe, trail work, or even tutor math online.

I hope that out of this time we find our way to decent coverage of medical conditions, recognize we are all in this together, and make sure public health—where all the major strides in longevity are made—is funded far better than it has been.

For once, being an introvert in a land of extroverts is a blessing.  

Avoid crowds?  No problem.

Pioneer violet (yellow) with Snowqueens

Diverted trail (left), with old trail (right)
The nice thing about trail work is I can usually find time to count the tree rings. This Doug fir was 430 years old, at least.

WE ALL OWN BEAUTY, NOT JUST A FEW

November 25, 2019

                                  

I had noted the temperature was actually getting warmer as I did the weekly hike up Spencer Butte with the Club.  No, it wasn’t just that I was working hard, but it was cold at the bottom, and it wasn’t nearly as cold a thousand feet higher.  We hike up to the top from the city, 3.2 miles gaining 1400 feet of elevation.  Slower hikers leave earlier; sometimes, I decide to leave early if I am rehabbing part of me, and other times I leave early so I can hike alone.  Often, I have a line of people behind my, liking my pace, but making me feel like the Pied Piper.  I don’t like such a situation, for I tend to walk faster, when I am already at cruising mode, and I get tired sooner.  Once I stopped suddenly on a hike to take a picture and got run into by the guy behind me.  I learned that backpacking through Alaska willows and other brush. Don’t crowd the person in front. They may have to suddenly stop, and they have sharp hiking poles. That can slip. Anyway, the summit of the Butte is finally reached after a series of rock steps, about 130 altogether, not counting the occasional smaller ones, and I looked down on a foggy, cold valley from the land of blue skies and sunshine.

Off to my northeast, the mill in Springfield had a plume of smoke rising in the sky then flattening out and spreading along an invisible barrier like a river.  I could see about fifteen miles of the smoke river, coming first towards me then moving away to the northwest.  

Wow, I thought, a classic inversion.  Warm air normally rises, and it normally keeps rising as the atmosphere usually gets colder with height. Valleys during winter collect heavier cold air as it sinks, and set up an inversion, where warm air rises through the cold air until it reaches the warm air above—not below—and stops rising. I first noted it in southeastern Arizona, back when I was commuting from Tucson to Las Cruces for graduate school.  Once, on a bike, I went through a thick fog bank going up to Mt. Lemmon, breaking out at about 4000 feet into bright sunshine and a dew point temperature, where water will condense into clouds, 30 degrees fewer than just a few hundred feet below.  Those who turned around in the fog missed a sunny day, which was about five minutes’ ride further up the mountain.  

My wife and I hiked through an inversion in the Grand Canyon in February 1989, when the whole canyon was full of clouds and bright sunshine up at Yaki Point.  We hiked down the South Kaibab, entered clouds, then broke out below into overcast conditions.  It was remarkable.  

Jan at Yaki Point, South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon. February 1989. Microspikes are on the toes of the boots.
Coconino Sandstone (the largest vertical layer visible), viewed from South Kaibab Trail

Back on Spencer Butte, I waited for others to come up and googled the University of Wyoming’s weather sounding page.  The closest weather balloon released was from Salem, about an hour north, and indeed showed a change in temperature of 0 C (32 F) at ground level and 10 C  (50 F) at 1500 m or 5000 feet.  Classic inversion, I noted, staring at the river. I told a few people about what we were seeing, but nobody seemed interested.  

Back then, I was still posting on Facebook, and I later posted the picture and the weather sounding as a textbook example of an inversion.  Here is another example, with a link to the actual weather at that hour.

Salem, Oregon sounding from 4 am 23 Nov 19. Notice the temperature C, third column from the left, gets warmer as one ascends, from roughly 33 to 46 degrees at 923 m or roughly 3000′ above sea level. Then the “normal” cooling with elevation gain begins. The 98% humidity at ground level suggests fog was occurring. The actual weather was indeed foggy.

Facebook is not the land of people’s liking textbook examples explaining physical phenomena.  I got exactly one comment, a nerd icon, which I didn’t even know such existed. It wasn’t the reason I left the platform, but it was one of the accelerants.  I haven’t missed the sniping, arguing, or ignorance since I left it.  Nope. I try to walk in beauty the way the Navajo Prayer says.

A decade prior, I had been hiking on the South Rim Trail in Big Bend National Park up to the overlook over the Chihuahua Desert.  I was alone, and as I hiked on the rim, I saw an area that looked like smoke, then steam, a quarter mile ahead of me.  I arrived at the area and saw water vapor condensing to form a cloud, right in front of me.  I was on top of a cliff, and the humid southerly wind from deep down in Mexico, had slammed against the cliff, forcing the air upward, where it cooled, since in summer the inversions are usually shallow and break.  Cool air condensed once it reached the dew point, which is higher in summer, and a cloud formed right in front of me.  This is orographic lift, and I was absolutely enthralled at the example I was seeing. 

Condensing water vapor, Big Bend NP, June 2007.

I was naive enough to think that The Weather Channel might be interested in a picture, so I sent one to them.  I didn’t hear anything, not surprisingly, but I was disappointed.

I get great pleasure out of seeing things in nature that are not only beautiful but enhanced because I’ve been fortunate enough to be brought up curious about the world.  A total solar eclipse is beautiful not only because of the color of the chromosphere or the thin strands of the corona, but because it is the resonance of three separate lunar cycles—the synodic, the anomalistic, and the draconic—which every 18 years and 10 1/3 days are almost exactly the same, so that the eclipses repeat every 18 years and change plus 1/3 of the way west around the world. I find that fact fascinating.  

On the Libyan cruise to the 2006 eclipse, an editor of Astronomy magazine discussed eclipses to the audience.  He didn’t mention the cycles, and I suggested afterward that perhaps people might like to know that.  “Nah,” he saiid, “that’s too nerdy.”  

That came from an astronomer.  

Just after the eclipse, Libyan desert 29 March 2006. The next eclipse in this family will occur in Mexico-US-Canada 8 April 2024

Normally, I don’t write about this sort of stuff, because most people aren’t interested.  I would simply say that 

In beauty I walk…

In beauty all day long may I walk.

Through the returning seasons, may I walk.

On the trail marked with pollen may I walk.

With dew about my feet, may I walk.

With beauty before me may I walk.

With beauty behind me may I walk.

With beauty below me may I walk.

With beauty above me may I walk.

With beauty all around me may I walk.

In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.

In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.

My words will be beautiful…

Rim of Four in One Cone, near McKenzie Pass, 6400′ elevation. There were many views of the major northern Oregon Cascade peaks that day, but the rim of snow all along the cone was my biggest memory. In photography, especially in relationships, and likely in life, the little things are often the big things.


ON AND OFF BUTTONS

November 1, 2019

The chain saw was wedged in the bottom of the 40 inch diameter log.  DAMN!  This had to have been the fourth or fifth time we had to deal with a wedged saw today, and it was now late afternoon.  

Our crew of three—the fourth had to leave early to get back to town by 5—looked at the log, which was mostly cut through, but obviously not completely. I hadn’t been impressed by the top bind, but the sawyer thought there was some.  If the top part of a fallen log is compressed, such as being in the middle of two parts that are supported, so there is a slight sag, the wood on top will tend to compress and grab or bind a saw, keeping it from moving.  If the saw is deep enough in the log, we can pound a plastic wedge into the cut or kerf, allowing the saw more freedom to move. If the log is under tension, a cut will tend to open and release the tension. When the kerf was opening up earlier in the cutting, a rather than narrowing, it suggested bottom bind, not a top one, but I didn’t say anything. I wish I had, for I might have been able to prevent a wedged saw.

I’m relatively new out there, now past the “Stay (the &%$) out of the way!!” instructions, so I tend to be quiet.  That is a mistake in the woods, just as it is in the cockpit or an operating room.  People don’t like criticism or comments.  The culture isn’t what it ought to be.

The sawyer, I later learned, had an on button but no off button.  She was a dynamo, one of those I learned who would be happy to still be out here at 8 pm cutting. I didn’t feel the same way.  In addition to my pack, I was carrying a Pulaski, my hand saw, gloves, a pair of loppers, plastic blue diamonds to place on trees for markers of winter trails, nails, and a hammer.  I was tired, and it made me more cranky and prone to mistakes.  We were cutting out a mile or two of trail, not a lot, but we had several hundred yards to go to the road and then a 2 mile walk back to the vehicles. Then we had to drive another 90 miles home.  I doubt the other two in the crew had made that calculation.  I had been refining it the whole day. It is useful to me to know where I am time wise  and trail wise in the wilderness. It is not considered a virtue by most of the people whom I am around, but I tend to arrive at where I want to be about when I expect to, without surprises, and I like that.

I was the only crew member who had been previously been on this trail, both in winter snowshoeing and in summer trying to place diamond markers.  I had been so upset about  missing markers in winter that I said someone ought to be out here putting therm in, and “someone” turned out to be me.

In June, I walked the trail.  That is not easy, since winter trails do not need to be cleared the way all year trails do.  A couple of feet of snow will cover a lot of plants and many downed logs, so only the big logs or logs over the trail have to be taken out.  The trail does have to be wide enough to be seen in winter, and that was a big problem with Nickerson Loop. I had been stopped on another person’s snowshoe trip at a brushy field with no clear path. In June, there was still no clear path, just a lot more brush to walk through, but I worked my way through it from both ends and placed a few diamonds.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was better.

With the chain saw crew, I had a chance to get the trail open for people to travel the loop.  We had cleared some brush and cut out about a half dozen logs earlier, the saw’s being stuck several other times.  I was later told the sawyer was relatively new, and I realized the bar of her saw, the metal semi-elliptical protrusion on it, was not long enough for the logs we would be cutting;  I knew beforehand and had mentioned that we would have at least a 36 inch diameter log to cut out. 

Anyway, the saw was stuck, and without another chain saw to free it up, we had a problem.  The so-called “walk of shame” is when a sawyer leaves the bar in the log, removes the motor and comes back later with another bar and chain to cut the first bar out.  I had some wedges used to keep the kerf open, and I put one below the saw and tried to pound it in, hoping I could move something enough to free the saw.  No luck.  We started with a hand saw in the cut to try to open it a little.  No luck.

The sawyer then took a handsaw and began sawing the log for a second cut.  This log was 40 inches in diameter—a meter—and handsaws are good up to 6 inches, 8 on a good day. I told her that wasn’t going to work.  She had a Katana 650 one person hand saw back at the car (650 mm), and the other crew member asked me how far it was.  I figured two miles, and then to myself multiplied that by 2 (round trip) and divided by 3 (walking speed, maybe) to get the round trip time in hours, and realized he might not be back here until 4:30 or 5.  He stayed.

So for lack of anything better to do, I took my hand saw to the kerf above the bound saw and started cutting.  The wood was obviously hard, but I went at it for a few minutes, trying to make sawdust while ignoring how much wood was below the saw, and then heard a noise—a slight crack.  

Hope.

I cut a little more vigorously and heard a louder crack.  The log was talking to us.  I gave the saw to another crew member, since he was stronger and I was tired, and within thirty seconds of his sawing, there was a large crack, the log started to fall, and the chain saw was free.  

Dodged that bullet.

We still had a couple more logs I knew about, because I had scouted the trail ahead of us, and after losing it, and cussing the people who didn’t replace diamonds (that would be me in part), found it again, and led the group to the next cut.  In addition to diamonds, I was using strips of pink ribbon that I could tie to plants.  Pink or orange ribbon has helped me find trails many times.

There was a pair of logs to be cut out that the other two dealt with while I put diamonds on both sides of a tree.  Then there were some logs that would be cut on a regular hiking trail, but I leave alone since snow will cover them, at least if we get a normal snow year.  They were cut anyway.  More time on trail.  I had said several times to the crew who was opening up the trail that this was a winter trail.  The bottom didn’t have to be perfect; people just needed room to pass through it.

I got home well after 6 and considered myself lucky.

I respect people with no off buttons, but I am not one of them, and I don’t think that is a particularly healthy lifestyle.  I could be wrong.  But I am correct when I say it is not good for me.  That kind of behavior reminds me of medicine, some of my mentors and partners, who appeared to be able to work without sleeping, eating, and perhaps even toilets for all I knew.  I just knew I couldn’t do that.  It was a reason I first left my group and then left medicine.  I’m hoping I don’t have to leave trail work for the same reason.  This isn’t trying to fix people, it is keeping trails open and is a volunteer duty.


The author (left) cutting out a log at Potato Hill Sno-Park, near Santiam Pass, Oregon.
Trimming branches at Little Nash Sno-Park,

TRAINING DAY

October 27, 2019

We saw the vehicle with hazard lights on, just before we arrived at Box Canyon, at about 3700 feet, where we were going to log out part of McBee Trail in the Waldo Lake Wilderness as part of crosscut saw training.  It was raining something that looked white. Good hypothermia weather, although sawing logs might keep us warm.  

Nobody at the car flagged us down, and we didn’t see anything, so we pulled into the parking lot, got into all our rain gear and personal protective equipment—hard hats, gloves, safety glasses– had our day packs on and were ready to go to work.  Five of us were getting some training, and while I had been in the woods crosscutting with the crew 19 different times, I figured I could learn some more.  It was my first time working with a saw since I broke my hand backpacking around Mt. Hood two months earlier.

We crossed Highway 19, the Aufderheide, a scenic but not often traveled 60 mile road between Highway 126 from Eugene to Santiam Pass and Highway 58 between Eugene and Willamette Pass.  Box Canyon was equidistant from each side.

While crossing the road, the truck that had had its hazard lights on stopped and asked if we could help. 

 
“There’s a car over the edge with a guy pinned in there.”

We had completely missed seeing the car.  Anybody could have.  The details weren’t completely clear, but the car was apparently driving west from Oakridge and heading towards Terwilliger Hot Springs the night before.  The hot springs are closed at night, but that didn’t stop people from using them. There were three in the car; the driver and one passenger were hurt but were able to leave and apparently flagged a car down and had called emergency.  An ambulance was heading up from the McKenzie River side, the north, but it was probably 40 miles, and the last 30 on the Aufderheide were narrow and bumpy.  They would be at least an hour and a half, maybe longer.

We walked towards the accident scene, about two hundred yards. My leg was bothering me, so I lagged behind.  We brought our tools, because we weren’t going to be doing any logging for a while until we understood the situation.  

A small, red car had collided with a fir and left a 7-8 inch gash in the bark, but not too deep.  The car had somehow turned and faced perpendicular to the road, engine compartment smashed in on the right, the windshield ready to give way, and the car was on some sort of stump, suspended, so it remained horizontal with the rear wheels several feet above the sloping forest floor under it. 

The other passengers or the hunters had put blankets on the victim, who was conscious but in a lot of pain from what appeared to be a fracture of the femur.  There was little we could do: one of the others in our group, who knew I was a physician, looked at me like I was supposed to do something.  We did not want to touch the car, and everything appeared relatively stable, so we waited for the emergency personnel to arrive.

About an hour after we knew about the accident, an ambulance arrived, a crew of first responders, someone from Eugene Mountain Rescue, and an Oregon State Police officer soon after.  They stabilized the car, started removing the passenger side front door, and got a backboard ready. They wanted to take the patient directly up the bank, which had a lot of brush.  

“Do you guys have loppers to cut out this brush?”

“Does the Pope have a Bible?” I thought.  We are a bunch of wilderness trail workers.  We had five loppers among us and cleared the bank in as minutes.  Then there was another issue.

“We encountered two logs coming in on the road.  We winched one out of the way, but the other needs to be removed.  Can you do it?”

Why yes, we can, but unfortunately, we aren’t the chain saw group. Still, we had bodies and we had a 5 foot, 2-man crosscut.  Four of us left and drove north down the Aufderheide about 6 miles, where we found a 75 foot western Hemlock down, the top covering about three-quarters of the road. This would be a big part of the training, cutting the tree out.

Of the four, one was an experienced crosscut sawyer, two were beginners., and I knew enough to be helpful. I was able to work with the two new people; we had to make two separate cuts because the log had such a top bind, or compression, we couldn’t get plastic wedges in to the kerf, or cut, to open it. We had to “chunk” the log by cutting and then using a Pulaski to remove wood. Eventually, we got through the log and with 4 of us pushing with our legs, moved it off the road, opening about 80% of the road there.

We then got back in the car and drove back towards the accident site.  Not five minutes later, a small group of cars, including one ambulance, came the other way.  

We had lunch standing up, by the trailhead in the rain, and then hiked into McBee trail, clearing about a mile of it.  When we came out and drove back to Oakridge, we came upon the tow truck with a red car, crushed front end, but no longer with a person in it.

Upper McKenzie Fire District first responder at the vehicle. The brush we would remove is in the upper right corner.
Log cut out. We didn’t cut from the road edge, because it was a lot thicker there and there was some time pressure to get the road open. The cut section is at the top.

PUBLIC SHAMING

March 30, 2019

As soon as I took a step towards the other side of the trail, right behind a crew member starting his chain saw, I knew it was a bad move. Oh well, I jumped quickly to the brush on the other side of the trail just I heard the chain saw roar behind me.  That was stupid, I thought, and I won’t do that again. I was carrying an axe and a hard plastic wedge, and my job was helping the sawyer by being ready to pound the wedge into the top cut to keep it open and keep the saw from binding.  But I should have waited before going to the other side.  

For the second straight week, we were clearing trail out by the Middle Fork Ranger Station near Oakridge.  The Wren Trail was normally a short, easy walk, but scores of large old growth and other trees had been brought down by the winter storm that shut down the county for a week, and the prior week the smaller chain saws used were limited in what could be cleared.

Today, we had cleared a couple of dozen big trees, 2+ feet in diameter, 200+ year-old Western hemlocks with a few Douglas firs and Western red cedars as well.  The trail was open for use again, and we were finishing a spur trail to a nearby road, making several cuts in a downed Douglas fir. It had been a good day, and the eight of us felt good about what we had done.  Nobody got hurt, although one man with whom I was working had a log brush his knee brace.

Before, during, and after. Each area that is cleaned needs to be planned, each log has to have its cut planned, and we need to be better at planning how we will get the logs off the trail. Near Middle Fork Ranger District office, Westfir, Oregon.

Shortly before we drove home, we gathered for a “tailgate session.”  I had been out more than thirty times with this group, and while we did morning tailgate safety sessions, this was the first afternoon one I had encountered. 

One of the two leaders, an experienced man in his 70s, who had spent decades cutting, looked around at all of us.  He looked at me, and then again at others, and I knew what was coming.  He finally looked at me again:

“You,” he said, pointing his finger at me, but not menacingly, “went around the saw as it was being started.  That is the worst possible time to do it.” The sawyer next to him with whom I had been working the whole day nodded agreement.

I don’t know who was looking at me, but I’m sure everyone else was.  I hadn’t been dressed down in public in a long, long time, and it stung.

“As soon as I went, I knew it was wrong,” I stammered.  And I heard again that saws starting up are most unstable.  That I didn’t know.  But I knew I was wrong.

The group discussed a few other things about safety, at least not involving me, but not involving any one individual.  I wasn’t going to say anything more, a decent approach, but I decided I would anyway.

“We need to stop and think before pushing logs off the trail that have just been cut,” I said.  This has been an issue on many of the outings I have been on, and it bothered me.  “I want to help, but if I’m not sure what the plan is, I am not going to hurt myself moving something until I get into position.”

Nobody said much. I’d seen far too many people in the woods push, lift, pull, or otherwise move logs without proper lifting care.  We were all old; sooner or later, bad technique causes problems.  Even good technique can.  I hurt my knee last summer by pushing in a way I thought was appropriate, but with which my knee disagreed.  I said probably the most important thing of all, although I didn’t appreciate it until later, and the others may not have even noticed: “we need to pay as much attention to moving the downed logs as we do to cutting therm.”

The worst thing that happened?  Being called “You.” He didn’t even know my name. I have worked with this man at least a dozen different days in the woods.  I’ve ridden in his vehicle three times 2 hours to a place and 2 hours back.  I talked to him at a benefit for the Crew at a bar because he was standing by himself and I didn’t see anybody else familiar.  OK, some people are bad at names, and I am one, so I wrote my name on the back of my hardhat.  He didn’t take the effort to know whom he was criticizing.

He should have taken me aside right then in the woods and told me why I did what I did was wrong.  That’s how you learn. Then, he could mention it at the tailgate briefing as something he has seen. I would have known it was about me, but I would not have been shamed. Instead, I felt “I’m once again at the bottom of the experience ladder and everybody else knows I’m a screwup and I shouldn’t come out here any more with the group and I just want to go home.”

If nothing else, he could have at least asked my name.

He didn’t.  He dressed me down in public, which my father and the military both taught me you never, ever do.  On board my ship, I heard a lot of yelling behind closed doors, and I saw chastened people afterwards, looking like they had been through a verbal wringer, but they at least had the dignity—yes, the dignity—of knowing that nobody else saw the scene.

Medical training was full of public dressing downs.  Woe to the physician, who, after having been up all or most of the night, didn’t have all the lab tests or a complete differential diagnosis on a patient right at his (usually his) fingertips.  It stings.  It can bring tears.

I saw a public dressing down of one of my classmates at New Mexico State when I was in grad school, and as one not involved in the issue, I felt so uncomfortable that I wanted to be somewhere else—anywhere else—at that time.  It was really ugly, and until this issue in the woods, I had repressed that day some twenty years ago.

When there is a dressing down, here are the reactions:

1. Try to become perfect, even if it is impossible, because perfection avoids mistakes, and mistakes are bad, bad, bad.  Rational? Of course not. But this is not a rational matter; it’s a deeply emotional one.

2.  Defend by attacking.  This same person who didn’t know my name was cutting a log a few weeks ago and not wearing a hard hat.  I deleted the picture I took of him. We don’t want to show that stuff.  We had too many people working in too small of a space today. That was unsafe, and nobody spoke up. We don’t lift properly, as I mentioned earlier. I did at least try to speak up, but it went nowhere. But none of that absolves me from my error, and bringing up examples of other errors is distracting and wrong.

3.  Stick to yourself, stay quiet, stay out of the way.

4.  Hide the error if possible.  A lot of doctors hide errors, because the ultimate dressing down in public—malpractice trial, which I have gone through—is intellectual rape

I’ll still work trails.  I know with whom I will try to work, however, and with whom I will try not to.  I’m a volunteer, after all, and while I’m not experienced at trail work, I’m not a beginner any longer or even a novice.  I go out to be in the woods, try to make current trails accessible again, and do good. I can go alone if I wish.

I’m a natural teacher.  Today, when the young woman at the drug store couldn’t make change properly, and I had to patiently explain the transaction to her two different ways, I did not berate her.  She felt badly enough and apologized for her lack of math.  I told her quietly not to worry about it.  If she’s good, she will worry about it, and she will get better,  but at least it was between me and her.  Nobody else.