April 26, 2007

Sheep Hill

Perched on one of the tallest mountains over the Salmon River in Idaho's Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, Sheep Hill Lookout made for a cozy little home for 5 weeks at summer's end. Scanning for fires, hauling water, chopping wood, stoking the wood stove: It was life whittled down to its simplest, most basic routines. It was also a humbling experience, being part of the food chain, alone and exposed in a raw environment hours from any town or sign of civilization, one that made me feel vulnerable and at times very small and insignificant; at other times, it was empowering and inspiring beyond words.
The solitude was sometimes frightening. Alone with my thoughts, fears, emotions for weeks on end, venting only to a small white dog, I was surprised by some of the feelings that surfaced. Here I was, being paid to LIVE, to live on a mountaintop where my nearest neighbors were 3 bighorn sheep and Tim on Oregon Butte Lookout, the horizon to my west. A seemingly easy task turned out to be a significant undertaking: the living was easy. Being alone with myself however was the most challenging thing I have ever done.

The first big lesson I learned was that life on the lookout is all about routines. In the beginning I sort of aimlessly wandered through my days, having all the time in the world to accomplish the tasks necessary for survival. Despite the obvious serenity and peace that should have come from being alone in a beautiful place, I felt unsettled and antsy. I started to feel depressed and lonely, like I had no purpose there, and no one to talk to about it. One day while at my wit's end trying to lit a fire in the woodstove with strong wind gusts blowing down the chimney, scattering my pile of tinder, I found a scrap of Karla's paper in a tin of paper's meant to be burned. Upon digging, I found more. They were written on the familiar gridded yellow sheet of the Forest Service's IDEAS pads: To-Do lists. She had written down even the most rudimentary, ordinary tasks, such as eating, going to the spring for water. Writing. Yoga. So this is how she had done it, stayed sane up there all those years. A little direction and the satisfaction of accomplishing something on a daily basis must have been her saving grace.

From that point on, I followed her lead. I wrote myself lists each day, and crossed things off as I did them. I felt much better about being on Sheep Hill and started to get used to being there. Stinky and I fell into a routine, and it started to feel normal to be living at 8500 feet on a mountaintop.

The second big lesson was learning not to feel guilty about not working all of the time--not actually going to work everyday but still getting paid was a new concept. There were tasks that were considered to be work, and occasionally my head would feel like it was spinning 360 degrees—“like the exorcist baby”, to quote my fellow lookout friend and mentor Rusty—trying to get a view of where the lightning was striking around me, near and far. I would turn the radio off when it got too close. Hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I could feel the buzz in the air. My pencil would fly as I marked down azimuths in the direction of the strike, so that I could monitor it later, even weeks later in the event of a 'holdover' fire. Sometimes a struck tree can smolder for days before flaring up, waiting for the right conditions: low relative humidity, high temperature or a good gust of wind. These are the fires that I feared most. What if I forgot about them and they just raged because I wasn't monitoring the area closely enough? What if I missed one and it got out of control before anyone could get there?

The third big lesson was learning to let go of irrational fear and paranoia. Just because I felt small and vulnerable, didn't necessarily mean that I was. Having confidence when alone in the mountains isn’t easy after the coddling and false sense of security we get from living amongst large groups of people in our cities and towns, but the reality is, most of us are safer in the wilderness than on the streets of America. Logically speaking, bears aren't likely to attack, the lone hunter on horseback probably isn't a rapist or serial killer, and if I take care when hiking I am not going to slip and break my ankle and be stranded out in the Wilderness with no help on the way. Not letting the mind go out of control with such Hollywood influenced thoughts was essential to maintaining whatever shreds of sanity I had. Being alone in the mountains is an indescribable experience: really truly being alone in real and true peace and quiet can be enlightening. I had many, many moments where I felt I could see everything and nothing, when not seeing a lick of civilization made me feel somehow more connected to it, more connected to myself. To life, big and small. Seeing icy trees and snowy mountaintops after the first winter storm (in September!), against a backdrop of the purest blue sky felt like the closest thing to heaven that I could fathom; in fact, it was my own private little heaven that I got to live in every single day.

The second winter storm was like an arctic blizzard. I hadn't even thought to bring any other footwear besides Chacos and running shoes, a testament to my gradual departure from being a woods-wise woman over the years, so getting around in the snow was sketchy at best. Going to the spring was out of the question for a few days; really going anywhere was next to impossible. (I have to thank Karla right here and now for hauling all that extra water over the summer, because the stockpile saved me! I am pretty sure I left a few cubies there for next year). With a radius of about 50 feet, activities were limited, and low, low clouds shrouded the tower like a fluffy down comforter, limiting visibility, and making for some claustrophobic days. A lookout is all windows, so you feel very affected by the weather conditions because you just can’t escape them.

After three days of living in a white out and doing every possible art project under the sun, including sewing a doggie jacket out of a fleece blanket, and being completely amused that it looked hauntingly like an Elfin cloak from Lord of the Rings, both in color and style, the clouds lifted and the world opened up again. It was magical: the visibility was crisp, and I could see mountain ranges I had never been able to make out, all covered in icy white. About 2 feet of snow had fallen, and although no more was in sight with blue skies overhead, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would ever get out of there. It was only the middle of September, and my supervisor Josh had told me on the radio that I would be up there until October 1, that this was just the first snow and that it always melted this early in the season. All I could do was believe him.

As it turned out, Josh was right--like any good Idaho boy, he knew all too well the ways of the weather in the mountains. We were back to clear skies and warmer temps, and ended up staying for almost 2 more weeks. We hiked out in T shirts on a perfect fall day.

It really was an unforgettable experience. I can honestly say it was one of the most amazing things I have ever done--on par with travelling really, and I only had to go out my back door to get there.

Photos, top to bottom: Sheep Hill LO; Karla and Me; Bandit's and Stinky Lakes; Lookout Drying Rack; The spring with 5 gallon "cubies" used to carry water; Icy Lookout; The Bitterroot Mountains, NE of Sheep Hill; Inside the Tower; Sunset


rusty said...

Nice to hear you got the hang of it and had a great experience!!

Matt Bulloch said...

Hi Rusty! Val, I love your blog and am sorry I am such an asshole of a friend. I quit my Wall Street job and am now running a little business in N. Michigan, aka where Hell froze over. My new number is (231) 218-1441.