Saturday, July 23, 2011

in the rhythm of measuring

we’ve made some serious improvements to the system. butter served by the spoonful into morning oats, cheese consumed in bread like slices. neoprene arm cuffs keep cold water from penetrating wool within seconds every morning. and then the big “I” for improvement is the groove we have found together. we have a rhythm to our days now, to the tasks ahead, to the decisions and unknowns we face along the way. we often load the kayaks in silence, knowing intuitively where each item goes and how it’s secured. we accept a plot to measure, and we know who does what. I have started to love the moment when odin leaps in front as we approach the last 25 meters before a possible plot center. we pull the tape together, and with this excitement in his eyes, he asks “can I run it?!” he bushwacks his way up the last stretch, pushing aside the thick understory and crushing the downfall on his way to our spot. I come trailing behind, scrambling my way up and over, never able to see him just 25 meters away until I’m there at his feet, reaching for a log or limb to get back to my own feet. then there I am, sizing up the trees again and our day’s dance amidst trunks and ferns begins.

we are two out of four trips down, and I am starting to think it is going to fly by too fast. 17 plots down, 23 to go. we actually have to buy return tickets to the “lower 48” this weekend. I’m not sure when I’ll go for a lot of reasons. somehow three days of work and life seems to pack into one for us out there and yet the clock still races. it takes so much energy to do what we do all day, I can’t let myself think too much of another world until I crawl in the nest at night. I’m sure that soon we’ll have 40 sites, I’ll be sleeping in a bed, and the thick clouds of mysterious history in slocum arm will feel like a distant memory I will also miss. so I am making sure to savor these moments. oddly sometimes that competes with the only way to survive the really cold ones - thinking of the warmth of a home, food, missed friends on the other end. it is a strange irony.

everyone rallied for a 15 hour day, nailing two sites, two lunches (could have used a third), proving to ourselves that we could do it. our big "two" day took three valiant attempts, stymied by big waves, poor sites, or climbs too demanding to make it a “double.” we are going to have a lot of those on tap for this next trip. paul, odin, kate, chant “TWO TWO TWO” to get us in the mindset. our hands keep taking their abuse. I went on antibiotics for an infection in one from a series of splinters. paul might be up for a dose (see his frightening crack lower left, below).

the sun came through for our day off in the wilderness before flying back to Sitka. kate and I paddled the whale together to this site from old homesteaders and spent the day basking in the sun, photographing, walking amidst human history with the dead cedars lining the backdrop. i heard about the broken down cabin from an ecologist in the area and came across a tattered copy of a book written there in the 50’s when I was in California. for the past 6 months I have been waiting for the day, curious what it would be like to stand there. I felt a similar sense of wonder to what I feel amidst the cedar forests. There was a life there we could only imagine. I ran my fingers over a pair of old leather boots, soles worn out and peeling back. i thought of what paths they might have carved, what challenges and beauties they once encountered on the outer coast.

other highlights – humpbacks coming into the arm for refuge from the outer coast storms, partnered sand hill cranes flirting amidst cedars, sitka spruce some 7 feet in diameter, bear’s den, and salmon returning with the tide. some lows – we are now making a list of all the things that were supposed to be bomber but failed us. the list gets longer every day. Brunton compass can’t declinate anymore (too much condensation). The toughest rubber fisherman pants we could find are tattered and torn. Sharpee pens ain’t that sharp anymore and duct tape really has met its limits. though we’d like to thank Ibex for the prodeal, we should also tell them their longunderwear woolies were the first to tear. the list of things we can’t live without has Arc Teryx at the top of it along with neoprene and chocolate, chased by the thoughtful notes of support and love from friends and family when we dry out in Sitka.

we leave again monday for our biggest trip yet. i’ll be celebrating my “dirty 30” birthday in the woods -- surely being the dirtiest I have ever been. -lauren

Sunday, July 10, 2011

snapleaf and the whale

My eyes slowly open as the pattering of raindrops on the roof of the tent moves from a dream to a conscious reality. I lift up my left hand, look at my watch. It’s 7AM. I hear Lauren stir beside me and after one big sigh I know that she means business. It’s time to get up. We both sit up stretch for a moment ramble to each other “warm…slept so well….could sleep forever….rain…need coffee…” We soon hear the boys wake up in the tent beside us. I unzip the tent flap, my body tenses up as the cool moist air infiltrates our dry warm sleep nest. Before I change my mind I swiftly unfold my cold, damp rain pants and slide them over my long underwear one leg at a time quickly followed by foot after foot into two equally cold XTRA TUFFS. One layer, two layer, three layer, four and I’m standing outside the tent reaching for my bear spray with one hand, the other rubbing my eyes, clinging to the last bit of warmth evaporating from my face.

I head over to the other side of the cove where we have set up our food and kitchen, consisting of a tarp and some flat rocks that Odin found to cook on. I heat up some water, pour heaping mounds of coffee grounds into everyone’s cups and rummage through the bear box for the trash bag that holds our breakfast food. Granola, powdered milk and dates. One after one the others arrive. Odin comes first, a tall figure moving along the edge of the declining tide outfitted in a large orange rain jacket, a wool hat, a soaking wet backpack, and a rifle slung over his shoulder. Odin starts to get lunch packed as Paul arrives smiling and feeling good, thoughts of GPS points, maps, and tree coring running through his brain. Next comes Lauren, radio in hand doing our morning check-in with dispatch and relaying a weather report to those people not fortunate enough to be in Waterfall Cove. We all sit and sip our coffee, scarf down our granola a little too quickly and proceed to get the camp squared away before we begin packing our gear into the kayaks. DBH tapes…check, quadrat poles…check, compasses…check, yardsticks…check, prisms…check, tree corers…check, tree tags…check, and so on.

All of the gear is loaded into the kayaks and we are ready to make our morning commute (as Lauren calls it) to the location of our plot for the day. Lauren and I climb into “The Whale,” our beautiful blue steed of a kayak. The boys push us off because we always manage to get stuck and away we go, soaring through the glassy water. The wind is hardly blowing and the water acts as a mirror creating the illusion that we are smack dab in the middle of two worlds. The mountains, the sky, and even the eagles soaring above are reflected one atop another and we are no longer paddling in the ocean water as we dip our paddles into the clouds and watch as the image of the sky ripples behind us. We are speechless for a while and then I utter from the front of “The Whale,” a distinct and increasingly louder “wooaaAHHHH.” We soon reach our desired location on the coastline so we come onto shore, unload the kayaks, and drag them above the high tide line. Packs on, we venture into the woods to tackle our plot. The forest turns into a relentless and aggressive jungle-jim almost instantly and before we realize what we are getting ourselves into we are crawling on hands and knees underneath fallen trees. Lauren has a close call as she falls through a root hole, now endearingly referred to as “child-eaters.” Odin bounds over an embankment that’s taller than him, only to pop up and yell back to the rest of us “don’t come this way!” Paul, our navigator tells us how far we have gone and much to our dismay, after an hour of intense climbing, falling, and hardcore bush-whacking he informs us that we have gone a measly 30 meters. 30 meters…in one hour…30 meters! After a lot of perseverance we reach our plot center and begin to flag it out. Odin and Paul begin to flag and take control of counting and measuring all of the saplings while Lauren and I go to the South and to the North to take notes on the less intensive satellite plots. When we return we eat a meal consisting mostly of tortillas. I then set out to measure tree heights with a laser rangefinder (so cool) while Paul takes DBH’s and hugs a few trees, and Lauren records and makes important decisions. Meanwhile Odin is hunched over, intently studying the under story plants, kneeling down every so often to count out all of the tiny tree seedlings.

Hands are sore, cold and pruny, bellies are hungry, and legs are tired but we finally finish. We have conquered the plot and everyone feels good. Pack up and head down the mountain back to our kayaks calling out to bears as we move. The kayak home is more tiring after a day of hard work and when we pull up back at camp everyone is tired and hungry. Two people work on dinner and one cleans the guns. When dinner is ready everyone gathers around and swears that this dinner is the best meal yet. The truth is that as each day goes by the meals taste better and better regardless of what they are. We then divide up a bar of chocolate, read some Tlingit stories from Odin’s book and head off to bed. Wet, cold clothes off and warm, dry clothes on. I have never felt so comfortable. I lie in my sleeping bag and as my eyes close I enter into the double world I witnessed earlier in the kayaks and enjoy the warmth of the tent until 7AM strikes again.
- kate

standing still in the cold

over the past two weeks we have been moving constantly. working hard to stay warm, measuring trees, paddling to sites, scrambling up/over/around every which way through downfall and regeneration, hanging bear bags, fetching water, cooking under tarps, dancing and singing loud to keep spirits up & the grizzlies away, and battling the steady chill of wind and rain on the outer coast. we are moving so much during the day, i have been waking with hunger pangs at night despite whatever we try to pack in during the day. some of the older mortality forests are so dense it takes us an hour to move a distance less than a city block.

after completing 86 kilometers of a coastal survey by boat to map the spread of mortality (big thanks to SCS and scott harris), we randomly selected 40 plots to measure this summer. so each day is like a treasure hunt – we have a point on a map, we have an idea about what we might see there, and then we try to find it by GPS, map and compass. i’ve built in safety clauses that come first before science. i think i am on the only one in the crew with a fear of heights. so around 60% slope when my heart starts to patter and i start hugging more trees for comfort, we reroute. we do the same sometimes for science. at times little spot X leads us to we boggy musqegs with few scattered trees on the edges of the productive stands, and then we have to reroute by our protocol again to find our plot for the day. it can be frustrating, working so hard to get to the place where we actually start our work.

there is a sense of anticipation amidst us all for that moment when we drop the stake in the ground, look up and the trees, and call out our plot number. R_03_31! Recent mortality, 3rd site, from coastal survey observation number 31. i am so focused on being present in my movement through the forest --- watching for patterns of plants and big trees as we move, finding my best route to avoid any injury, and listening for birds and wildlife. when i stand at plot center for that first time, it feels like meeting a new friend. I look up and start to think about the structure of the dead forest above and the new growing below. there are first impressions. i make those judgements, sizing everybody up, and know then that for the next 8 hours and then the years to come, that place will teach me a lot more on its own. if only I look hard and listen. there is an aurah of history in the white skeletons of cedar. then this curiosity about what booms below. a curiousity about the future.

my favorite task is the last of the day – when paul and I get to coring. his positive energy is relentless as he jumps from tree to tree and kate nails the heights. we have made all our measurements. i have my thoughts on what’s happening here. we have a roster of everybody in our plot “Yellow Cedar, Dead, Class 4… broken at the top…” “Sitka Spruce, big fatty DBH 40.3 centemeters…” when I pull out the core the years of each trees life unfold before us. it’s also a moment when I laugh at myself thinking, “how the heck did become one of those people geeking out over something like a splinter of wood?” and then I realize it is all about standing still.

something about our generation today especially has led to a lot of wandering. I’ve been a wanderer myself. scattering here or there, savoring each place and person in my life for the time, that smaller window. the tendency, the draw is to wander. I think people find it easier to hop from one job to the next, one place to the next, than to stand still, really commit to one, and accept all the challenges and then wonders that come with that. there are times I question what I am doing. especially in the harder moments... but the questioning doesn’t last long. despite all the moving day after day, i am standing still, getting to know a place deeper that I ever have with quite a group of committed, adventurous souls. it's not just any place -- but a carefully chosen one. we are out there on the edges of the outer coast, "frolicking" on the far margins of Wilderness. these lands are farther from “civilization” by any standard in the lower 48. they are intact and “pristine” – what those Hudson River School romantics would have painted if they had only been able to get here. landscapes that seem like remnants of the wilderness Thoreau pondered and what people once encountered in the old growth stands of the pacific northwest.

but here too, amidst the fog and vast open waters of slocum arm, these forests too are changing. we’re doing our best to learn how and why it’s important. i believe standing still has something to teach us. so tomorrow we go back. i need to eat another pound of cheese and spinach before then, but tomorrow we go back.

we’ll be out for another 12 day stint, back on the 22nd. thank you for the carepackages of fatty cookies and sweet smellin love. b & s at the roble ridge farm take the cake for the best homemade hippy granola ever. and thanks to a little california sun, i'm adding a "new" tshirt to the one sacred set of tent clothes that must stay dry at all costs.