Get Outside, Just Not Around Me

mwgangI spent the last couple weeks driving around listening to the audio version of Ed Abbey’s classic The Monkeywrench Gang. I enjoyed it quite a bit, as the guy reading it, Michael Kramer, did a fantastic job. But it didn’t help my growing surliness — likely a symptom of age and a faltering tolerance for bullshit as much as anything else — as it relates to sharing the wilds with other people. And that is stretching the term “wilds” so thin it’s practically invisible. My last rant on this subject turned into something of a false alarm, but it doesn’t change the fact that this time of year more and more people are using my beloved river access site, and making a mess of it. Cigarette butts, random garbage, etc. Hell, even their mere presence can irritate me, even though I’m not so myopic as to not understand they have every bit as much a right to be there as I do. A couple twitter friends and I were discussing something similar last week. I had mentioned I feel it is a failing on my part that I’ve not yet visited the Grand Canyon. My friend Jeff, aka The Southwest Dude, weighed in with some suggestions for areas of the park that were a little less traveled, information I find critical. I pointed out then, as I have been saying for over a year now based on my last visit to Yellowstone National Park, that one of the greatest things about our national parks is that they are so accessible to everyone. At the same time, one of the worst things about our national parks is that they are so accessible to everyone.
selfie-stick-1I recognize that it sounds like I’m some kind of outdoor snob. I suspect I probably am. I thought about this a lot last May, when work took me to the Bay Area, and I ventured into the Muir Woods just north of San Francisco. This is a beautiful cathedral of magnificent trees, regularly overrun with people. There are signs all over requesting visitors be quiet, all of which are ignored, at least they were when I was there. I also saw for the first time in person the much maligned “selfie stick.” This guy was walking around, his camera on the end of this thing, pointed at himself, filming his progress through the park. Not filming what he was seeing, the camera was directed at himself. It was bizarre. I followed him for about 10 minutes or so, somewhat dumbstruck, just to see what he would do. He just kind of buzzed around, making like he was looking at stuff, but mostly just looking into the camera, moving its angle around, etc. Then I realized how monitoring his actions were spoiling my experience, so I just paused and let him go on about his business while I refocused on my own enjoyment of the area.

There is no right way or wrong way to experience the outdoors (unless you’re a litterer, of course), so I know I need to lighten up. Just because I can’t get enough time outside, and get depressed and quite angry with myself when I don’t make more time for it, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be just a casual experience for others. I don’t understand people who don’t like the outdoors, but that’s their prerogative. I should be pleased to see people out and enjoying themselves, because getting out in it is the only way to build a connection that inspires action to protect it.

Sometimes it’s just hard to share.

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Rage Spike

3:00 PM UPDATE: Turns out it was AN INSIDE JOB!

After talking to my mom, who suggested that maybe the willows had been cut intentionally, I called the local FWP office and talked to the manager who handles Council Grove, Mike Hathaway. Turns out they did indeed do the cutting, or at least it was done in their name via an Americorps volunteer, who also performed the initial planting. The tops of the trees were starting to die, and they were being damaged by the wind, so they were cut in hopes of encouraging root growth. Mike and I also discussed the fact that people were still obviously accessing the river via that closed spot, even though there is available access about twenty feet away. He asked my opinion as to what I thought should be done next, etc. So it was a good conversation. I told him I felt a little guilty for feeling the outrage, and he told me I shouldn’t. “Get a group of us managers together,” he said, “and you’ll hear plenty of stories of just the kind of vandalism you suspected here.” So while I briefly thought that maybe people DON’T suck, it turns out they actually still do.


 

Whenever I’m not traveling, every day I take Darla the Adventure Dog for a walk at a river access location nearby called Council Grove. It is actually a primitive state park. During poor weather, or cold weather, we practically have it all to ourselves. As summer rolls in, it sees more and more use. It’s beautiful, with copious wildlife, primarily birds. It is an easy place to love, and sauntering there is often the highlight of my day. I know it is for Little D as well.

A few weeks ago, along about a 40-50 foot stretch of riverbank, where the edge has broken off and collapsed into the flow of the river when it runs higher than normal, the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks people posted several signs that read as follows:

Willows have been planted in this area to restore natural habitat, prevent flooding, and stabilize the river banks. Help keep Council Grove a great place for both wildlife and people by not disturbing the vegetation on the banks, keeping your dogs on leash, and accessing the river at suggested river access points only. Thank you for your cooperation.

I’ve spoken with the game warden a couple times when I’ve encountered him down there, and he’s a nice enough guy. He realizes most people don’t keep their dogs on leashes, and isn’t really a hard-ass about it. But as it gets busier, he needs to enforce it. I understand. Most people take the risk. It isn’t a big deal.

They planted at least 20 or 30 willows along that bank. There is a perfect access spot right adjacent to the closed area, with a sign indicating it as such. I was out there Monday the 15th, and the new growth looked good. The next day I left on a work trip, and wasn’t out there again until the afternoon/evening of my return on the 19th. In the intervening time some fucking asshole had come along and cut off all the willows and absconded with them. They range in size from a bit bigger than my thumb to as small as my little finger. All gone.

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Who the hell does something like that? Some jerk-off mad at MFWP? And they’re too dumb to realize it’s everyone else they’re hurting too? It is the kind of senseless vandalism I just don’t get. Leaving cigarette butts and beer and soda cans and shit like that pisses me off because it’s lazy. This fills me with rage. What sucks is they will likely never be caught either. What a waste. I’m making tons of effort these days to try and get my head straight and be a better person and all that, but stuff like this (not to mention racism and mass shootings and free trade agreements and oil rigs headed to Alaska and on and on… ) really makes me wish for a freakin’ pandemic or something. Truly.

Well. Rather than close on a bad note, here is a collection of Darla the Adventure Dog in action at Council Grove. She’s always happy so long as some rambunctious puppy isn’t all up in her grill.

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And here are just a couple other shots I’ve taken there recently.

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Creekside Drama

The other evening a couple miles up on my (near) nightly ramble in the Rattlesnake I reached a spot creekside. It was a gorgeous fall evening, and I decided I wanted to grab a picture — it’s one of my favorite spots that, while definitely popular, doesn’t get near the traffic other sites do — before climbing a steep hill and returning to the trailhead. As I approached the bank, I thought to step out onto some flat rocks so that I could be farther out into the water for a better photographic vantage point. I took a step, heard a splashing at my feet, and lo and behold —

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This snake had a fish firmly by the tail. Up out of the water, the fish’s gills were still flexing steadily, but not quickly. My immediate reaction was to want to rescue the fish, which is strange. Yeah, I have learned a deep affinity for fish as I’ve become a more avid fisherman (how’s that for a contradiction?)(I’m certain other fishermen, and hunters for that matter, can relate), but why should its life be more important than that of the snake? So I left them alone, and sat back to watch the struggle unfold. I was transfixed, and found it oddly emotional.

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At one point a couple other hikers approached, with dogs, and I stood from my perch on a rock to try and keep the dogs away. The two hikers — young women — eyed me with looks of mild concern before ascending the hill I had intended to climb. I didn’t want the dogs to mess up what the snake was trying to accomplish.

The snake worked the fish around and positioned its jaw at the fish’s tail, clearly with the intention to swallow the entire thing. How it hoped to accomplish that I don’t know, but I trust it knew what it was doing. I could have remained until darkness watching, fascinated, but I had to return to Missoula and pick Julia up after work. I was pleased to witness it, though. Something I’d never seen before, and possibly never will again.

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The next night I returned to the spot, curious to see if there were any signs of what had happened. No dead fish, no bloated and belching snake, nothing. No one ever would have known what had happened there. Who knows what DID happen there. Maybe the snake pulled off its feast, maybe a dog — or bear, for that matter — came along and swallowed them both. I’ll never know.

I took the opportunity to take the pictures that I hadn’t the night before, though.

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I explored a couple little side trails on the way back that I hadn’t hiked before. Looking upstream I could see clearly that someone had built a cairn out in the flow, but there weren’t any obvious paths to access it. After some bushwhacking and finally some wading out into the current, I got a closer look.

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There were a couple cairns, which were cool enough, but what amazed me is that someone had taken the time and no small amount of effort to make little redirections of the stream so that it flowed over rocks, creating little pools and waterfalls along the way. It was like some guerrilla zen garden of some kind, and I loved it. Again, I could have stayed for hours. The pictures I took don’t do it justice.

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It made me happy. It proved that how we humans choose to disrupt nature doesn’t always have to be shitty, that sometimes we can actually make beauty. It was good to be reminded of that.

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Lookout!

WASHINGTON STATE FIRE LOOKOUT PROJECT WITH KYLE JOHNSON

This is a pretty cool project this photographer Kyle Johnson did for Filson Life:

This project is an exploration of the 92 lookout towers that remain standing in Washington State. Shot entirely with medium format film, Kyle has set out to capture the experience of hiking to these lingering giants, as well as documenting the scenic views and people he meets along the way.

More about the lookouts:

In the late 1930s to mid 1940s, the United States scrambled to build as many Fire Lookout towers as possible to protect against a growing number of wildfires. Washington State alone had over 600 in use during this time. Lookout Rangers worked this special summer job, acting as a lifeline for the forest and helping to protect what so many people take for granted.

Sadly, in the last few decades many of these historic lookout towers have been abandoned, destroyed or vandalized.

In Washington, only a few are still manned by Forest Service Rangers. Still, during the summer months, many are still accessible and make for some of the most rewarding hiking destinations the Northwest has to offer.

Part One of the series of photos is here. Part Two is here. They are well worth taking a look at, especially if you are fan of the Pacific Northwest.

We have a history of lookouts here in Montana as well, of course, most of which are also abandoned. There are a number available to rent for camping, something Julia and I have talked about doing but haven’t as yet. The summer of 2011 we hiked up to the top of St. Mary Peak, which has an unmanned lookout. Here are a couple photos from that expedition (which was undertaken in mid-July, and we still almost lost the trail a couple times due to snow):

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9780061859366There is a literary history concerning lookouts as well, specifically the work of Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac, for example. Earlier this year I read Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors. I loved it. Here’s the scoop via Amazon:

For almost a decade, former Wall Street Journal reporter Connors has spent half a year keeping vigil over 20,000 square miles of desert, forest, and mountain chains from atop a tower 10,000 feet above sea level. One of a handful of seasoned, seasonal fire-watchers in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, Connors introduces us to his wilderness in this ruminative, lyrical, occasionally suspenseful account that bristles with the narrative energy and descriptive precision of Annie Dillard and dovetails between elegiac introspection and a history of his curious and lonely occupation. Poet Gary Snyder, environmental advocate Edward Abbey, and beat novelist Jack Kerouac once stood watch over the woods, but today, 90% of American lookout towers have been decommissioned, with only a few hundred remaining. The world at large intrudes in Connors’s account of contented isolation only in a discussion of evolving forest fire–fighting policies, in which advocates of ruthlessly suppressing fires are pitted against a new generation of Forest Service professionals who choose, when it’s safe, to let forest fires burn themselves out.

If you are interested in the wilderness, in Forest Service policy, or even just a history buff, this book is worth your time.