The World is Golden

aspen-against-blue-sky-horizontal-yesThere’s a long, south facing hillside up in the Stanley valley, near Redfish Lake, which is covered with an equally long stand of aspen trees. There’s a trail that meanders along the base of the hillside for a few miles and I’ve always thought that hike would be spectacular in fall when the trees were in full color but for two decades I’ve missed it. Successful leaf peeping requires timing, luck, and motivation and for whatever reason I’ve never had all three in sync.

This year I finally hit it. I did a runaway up to the cabin for a couple days of Indian summer and struck gold. Turns out it wasn’t just the aspen. The whole valley was lit up. Golden. This time of year the light is thinner, slanted, as the sun retreats back towards the southern hemisphere and the way it reflected off the changing foliage of willows and dogwoods, aspens and dried grasses made the air itself glow. It was an extraordinary sensation.

Left to my own devices I would have parked my phone camera at home and just rambled around for two days soaking it in. I find a lens tends to get in between me and the full experience of a place. But I promised my mother-in-law I’d take pictures for her and it was not a promise to renege on. Marie lived up in that valley for twenty-five years, running the medical clinic as the first practicing nurse practitioner in the state of Idaho and ministering to the health needs of a rural population when no doctor was willing to go. She adored her life up there, loved it, but at 84 years old and losing her sight she’s given up the mountain mama existence and moved to the lowlands where more care is available. She never complains mind you, she’s an amazing woman that way, but I could hear the longing in the way she talked about her memories of the fall colors so I was hellbent and determined to at least capture some of it for her digitally.

These are the result.

Version 2Above is Fishhook Creek running through a large beaver engineered water system that spans the meadow with a couple of Sawtooth peaks behind.

fisher-creek-range-sunsetFoothills in front of the White Clouds mountain range during sunset. You can see pockets of color as the aspen are changing.

iron-in-river-rocksThis is a stone in Fishhook Creek full of iron, which gives it the orange-red color. (It’s an iron rich area.)

aspen-hillside-with-mountain-yesThis is a view of part of that long hillside I mentioned. The color just keeps going and going and going and going…

And finally…

illuminated-aspen-1Sunlight illuminating the leaves from behind. The photo doesn’t do it justice of course. The real effect was rather holy…another one of those moments out in the natural world when the impulse to fall on my knees and whisper thank you to whatever would listen almost got me. In the end I couldn’t do it in front of the Canadian hikers behind me but still, we were all pretty quiet and big eyed.

Here’s for you, Marie. Thanks.

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Wildfire: ‘Tis The Season

Photo shot from the bedroom window.

We just got back from a quickie vacation up to the cabin where we went kayaking for two days and did a thirteen mile hike up to a stunning alpine lake in between.  The hike was a huge, HUGE triumph for me.  I haven’t been up to this particular lake in about eight years because I got too fat and waddling over that much rocky trail made parts of my feet go numb.

Enter Weight Watchers and minus fifty pounds later…voila!  I made it….easily…and hiked all the way around the lake to boot.  I became surprisingly emotional on the return trip, fighting back tears when it hit me that my hiking days weren’t over after all.  I’d been schooling myself to let Alice Lake…and all the other beautiful, beloved wilderness places more than, say, three miles out…go, but it turns out I don’t have to now.  Not yet anyway.

Fat is evil.  I can’t tell you how grateful I am to get it off again.

Summer in Idaho is wildfire season, every year, as it is in most of the western states.  Fire is actually an ancient and integral part of the ecosystem out here but for about a century’s worth of forest management policy that fact was poorly understood.  Enter Smokey the Bear and the motto he tried to get us all to live by:

ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT FOREST FIRES!

But those days are gone and now the common practice is to allow wildfires to go ahead and burn in areas where they’re not threatening structures, roads, or lives.  They often burn in remote areas for months on end until the first snowfall finally comes to put them out, with the forest service keeping an eye on them all the while, only stepping in to herd them a little if they start heading in a wayward direction.

Two days before we arrived up at the cabin the Halstead wildfire flared up and grew really fast.  A cold front blew in Thursday evening and the winds that came with it were  strong enough to increase the fire by 75% overnight.  This is what it looked like from the town of Stanley on Sunday.

Wildfires tend to inhale during the day as temperatures heat up and you’ll often see this kind of mushroom shaped cloud forming above the areas where they’re burning the hottest.  Wildfires can also generate their own winds and the big ones create firestorms that are incredibly dangerous for firefighters.  The Halstead Fire is one of those, which is part of the reason why they’re just letting it burn.  Last I heard it had grown to about 22,000 acres or so, fueled by all the dry, brittle pine trees that have been killed off by the pine beetle infestation.

Here are a couple more shots I took as we were leaving Stanley to come back to Boise this afternoon.  (The straps are tie-downs for the kayaks on the roof of the car.  Sorry.  I know they’re annoying.)

And here’s a view from the side.  This fire stretches over a lot of ground:

And below is part of the fire camp where headquarters have been set up for this particular wildfire.  Each one gets its own local base of operations.

A couple hours of driving later and we just happened to stumble across the next wildfire that was started last night.  While the Halstead Fire was started by lightning, the Springs Fire (below) was human caused which is always disheartening.  It seems to be burning near a local hot springs (locally known as the skinny dipper’s hot springs) that attracts a lot of people year round.  Maybe one of them got stupid.  It’s not that hard to do when things get this hot and dry.

This fire is really close to the highway so traffic through the burn area was closed down to one lane.  Here we are below in a line of cars waiting for our turn to drive through.  You can see smoke from the fire up on the hill straight ahead.

As we were waiting one of the helicopters fighting the fire flew almost directly over our heads, banked sharply in a U-turn, then flew down to the river just below us and scooped up some water in the bucket dangling underneath it.

It was outrageously cool to watch.

And this is what the approach to the fire looked like once we started moving again:

We passed the turn-out on the side of the highway where all the skinny dippers usually park only to find it now filled with emergency and fire fighting vehicles. (Photo below.)  You can also see the helicopter again, in the center of the photo, flying near the fire.  Look at the bucket.  Tiny, no?  It gives you an idea of what an enormous task it is to try and contain these things.

Here are the rest of the pics I took as we drove through.  I was pretty much just continuously snapping pics on my old, old cellphone so they’re not great.  But hopefully it’ll give you an idea.

And of course, no discussion of wildfire would be complete without some kind of reference to climate change.  Long-time fire fighters were among the earliest converts to the notion that things are heating up, mainly because they see it up close and personal every year.  The fires are getting bigger and burning hotter, regularly doing more damage and claiming more lives than they did in years past, and the brave people out there who are roping and riding these things in order to try and protect the rest of us are at greater and greater risk.

I’m not sure where it’s all headed but we’re certainly living in the middle of a big paradigm change.  It would be great if everyone could be more careful anyway.  Here are a couple of pointers if you’re headed out to recreate in a dry area:

  • Don’t drive over tall, dry vegetation.  The underside of a vehicle gets very hot and will ignite it.
  • If you smoke use a can with some water in it for an ashtray and put the spent match in there, too.  If it’s windy, then please just don’t.
  • Keep fireworks on the pavement in front of your house.  Don’t take them out into the countryside.
  • Sparks from chainsaws, welding torches, and other equipment are dangerous.  Fires get started that way every year.
  • And then there are campfires which should never, ever be left unattended:  1) use a fire ring.  2) have water and a shovel handy. 3) Don’t drop a match on the ground until it’s cold.  4)  To put it out, pour water on the fire and stir until all the materials are cold to the bare touch, including any roots that might be running through the fire ring.  (Fire can travel along roots and pop up in a completely different area.)  5) Obey any and all campfire bans.  They’re issued when the risk of wildfire gets too high.

Be safe and enjoy!

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Of Birthdays, Mouth Control, And The Risk of Living

My birthday just passed and the hubster and I headed outdoors to spend the day kayaking and hiking.  We always go outside for my birthday because if I were a compass, the natural world would lie at magnetic north.  This year was particularly inviting because it’s been so radically warm that it already felt like spring.  Everyone was outdoors in fact, not just us.  The young, strong, and nubile were hitting the river in wetsuits, while a caravan of towed motorboats wound its way out to the reservoirs with beach chairs and coolers of beer carefully tucked among the fishing gear.  (We lie somewhere around the middle of this spectrum.)

We’re just starting to kayak…our adventurous spirit is reviving from a near death experience as we finally shed some of this horrible weight…and we spent about an hour on a calm pond next to the river in town trying out different kinds and sizes of boats.  (Or, in the vernacular, “yaks.”)  Afterward we decided to drive up into the reservoir system northeast of Boise to scout for more exciting places to paddle once we spread our wings.

There are three dams on the middle and south forks of the Boise River…Lucky Peak, Arrowrock, and Anderson Ranch…and the reservoirs they create stretch for miles back into the mountains.  Below is a photo of Arrowrock dam with spring flows already being released due to the early snow melt.  Note the sparse snow cover on the mountains back behind.

The lack of snow bodes ill for future irrigation but it was terrific for hiking.  Normally we wouldn’t be able to access the ravine pictured below this time of year…at least without snowshoes…but we caught a great day.  The creek that runs along the bottom was low enough for us to cross since most of the lower snow had already melted and run off.  (The hubster missed one jump and got a shoe wet though.  Fortunately, he survived as seen with Dane the mangy rescue mutt below.)

It was spectacular back there, with snowy peaks capping both ends of the valley.  We had views both coming and going.  This is what it looked like hiking in:

And this is what it looked like coming out again:

As we began our hike we met a couple waiting next to a truck near the trailhead.  The woman, a pair of binoculars in hand, had just slid down a side hill and was engaged in serious consultation with the man.  They explained they were waiting for their three teenage sons who had hiked off along a high ridge running above the ravine some time earlier.  They seemed uneasy as the boys were late returning to the truck.  I got the impression the two weren’t married and that the mother was a lot more worried about her son(s) than the father, a hunting man, was about his.

She asked us to watch out for them and to deliver the message that they were waiting if we saw them, and I assured her we would.  But not before the hubster joked that the word “mother” is embedded in the word “smother.” (Sigh)  He realized from the ensuing awkward silence that it was a glaring faux pas, but couldn’t unsay it at that point.  Really, he’s come so far over the years in terms of filtering the thoughts in his head before they spill out of his mouth, but every once in a while he still just takes a hard right like that and sails over the cliff.

As a mother, I could relate to her worry because…well…that’s just what we do.  We know what can happen.  But at the same time I didn’t take her fears seriously because I was picturing boys in the sixteen to seventeen year range.  Around here, boys of that age with a hunting father are already experienced in wild terrain, so a simple hike on a clear afternoon wouldn’t usually pose any kind of meaningful risk.

We were only about a half-mile in when we sighted them up the trail and I immediately realized her worry was based on something more substantial.  The boys were younger than I thought…more in the twelve to fifteen year range…and her son, a pale, slight boy with glasses, looked to be the youngest.  By the time we met we could see that all three of them were agitated, a little scratched up and dirty, and they pounced on us wanting to know how much farther it was back to the trailhead.

They told us they’d been hiking along the ridge on the other side of the ravine when…for a boyish lark I suppose…they decided to climb down the mountainside, cross the creek, and climb back up to the trail we were on.  They pointed out the spot where they chose to make their descent and my blood went cold.  You can’t really tell from the photos but the sides of that ravine are quite steep and the boys had not only picked one of the steepest spots of all to climb down, it was a rocky, north facing slope that still held a thin layer of snow.  The descent was far more slippery and treacherous than they realized and they all exclaimed that they’d wound up slipping a few times.  If one of them had lost control of their fall, it would have meant tumbling wildly down a thousand feet of hillside, battered against jagged granite outcroppings the whole way.  Even the oldest boy (who seemed to be the son of the hunter) was visibly shaken by the experience.

We gave them the mother’s message and sent them on their way (although not before the hubster…imploding under the pressure of a stern admonition not to…helplessly blurted out to hurry because their mom was crying, which only made her son even more upset.  He then tried to backtrack by calling after their swiftly receding backs, no, no, no, it was their dad crying, not their mom, but both the intended humor and the correction sailed right over their heads.  I was just grateful she’d be gone by the time we got back.)

We talked for a while about boys of that age and how unpredictable they can be, how an older child can so easily lead younger ones into situations that escalate like that one did, and how all three of them now have a great story to add to their growing cache of adventures.   We shook our heads and reminisced about our own early scrapes, marveling yet again that kids ever survive to adulthood at all, and it made me think about the growing trend these days of trying to protect them from more…and more and more…of the perennial dangers that always lurk in the world.

To my eyes, some of these efforts lean towards the irrational, to the point where some regulatory attempts (not to mention some of the things parents are being prosecuted for) can not only interfere with basic parenting but a child’s ability to explore their world as well.  I sometimes wonder what kind of people our children will turn into under so much legislated fear, and what kind of society it might lead them to create in their turn.  Hopefully, the pendulum will eventually swing back to an attitude that’s more balanced…something that moderates the current hyper-vigilance with at least some acceptance of the fact that the very nature of life is, and always will be, unpredictable.

We stayed out for a couple hours and, as we headed back, the setting sun broke through the clouds turning the whole valley golden behind us.  A parting gift from the weather gods.

We ended the day by impulsively stopping by Mon Pere’s house on the way home and catching an impromptu dinner with him, his girlfriend of twenty-five years, and her daughter and grandson.

By the end of the day I was a very happy camper; relaxed and supremely content.  It was a most excellent birthday, to be sure.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012