So, I just got down from Tyler’s lookout last week. We had a wonderful time for the two and a half weeks I was up there…we read books to each other, went hiking, cooked, and enjoyed the beautiful vista and birdlife. The weather was perfectly, utterly clear the whole time (a few days of fog at the beginning, a foggy day when I left, and full sun every other day). We had no lightning, and therefore no fires, but I still took the time to learn the ropes and I think I could have run the place myself if Tyler had needed to leave (which almost happened, when he had an eye problem for a few days). It was restful, peaceful, and idyllic. It was also the first time we’d had any quality time together since before I left on Semester at Sea.
The only hitch was right in the beginning. And it was a doozy.
We were slated to fly to the lookout on June 23rd. I arrived two days ahead of time to attend the lookout orientation. We spent those few days finishing the packing and gathering some lookout supplies on the government budget, like light bulbs, a can of paint for the outhouse, a paint scraper, and other various objects. Tyler and I had already spent a significant amount of time in Moscow and Seattle getting personal supplies for the lookout, like a summer’s worth of non-perishable food. Some things were new, like a small padded and folding meditation stool that Tyler bought for himself as a sort of graduation present (thick wood). Others were borrowed, like a stack of books from me and a stack of books from Doc. But most were things we had already…lots of clothes, lots of books, lots of art supplies (I had 25 tubes of acrylic paint) and some special items, like letters, photographs to hang up around the building, Tyler’s gargoyle, Tyler’s dragon, etc. My stuff filled one big 25-gallon plastic bin and my big frame pack. Tyler’s stuff filled 4 and a half 25-gallon plastic bins, but also included some extra boxes, like his 50 lbs of bulk granola (breakfast, every day), 2 cases of soy milk (for the granola) and that sort of thing. The morning we left, we filled a large FS cooler with our perishables (eggs, butter, fruit, veggies, fungus), packed it in my Explorer (which was quite literally full to the ceiling), and drove to the Krassel Ranger Station.
Krassel is only 40 miles out into the Payette National Forest, but it’s mostly on winding dirt roads, so it takes a few hours to make the drive. Once we arrived at the station, we unloaded all our gear, secured everything with strapping tape, weighed and labeled the boxes, and carried the gear out to the airfield. We would travel to the lookout in several trips. The first trip would carry Tyler, myself, and two helitack members up to the lookout helipad, along with a few small bags and boxes. The helicopter would then return to Krassel and pick up the bulk of our gear (95% of it) in a slingload below the ship, carefully fly it to the lookout and deposit it next to the building, then land at the helipad farther down the trail and pick up the helitack. No problem. Tyler and I dressed in our green one-piece flight suits and big white visored helmets (half storm trooper, half Top Gun) and waited for the helitack to slingload our stuff and finish the helicopter maintenance. When they were ready, we ducked, ran into the ship, put on our harnesses, and took off.
It was glorious. I’d never flown in a helicopter before, but I loved every second of it. It has all the speed of flying, but with the freedom of precision and the ability to actually fly close to the trees or canyons if you choose. I grinned like an idiot like the whole time. I love flying in airplanes, but this didn’t even compare.
We landed at the helipad and carted our few belongings up to the lookout, where we quickly shed our flight suits. The helitack marked out a spot near the building for the pilot to deposit our gear, and then helped us to start taking down the wooden shutters over the windows. Tyler was bouncingly ecstatic to be back.
At some point, we heard the helicopter pilot make the announcement over the radio that he was departing from Krassel with our slingload, so I paused from taking down shutters and paid attention. But only about a minute into the flight, the radio came on again. Now, Forest Service radio is very formal and minimalist, because a lot of personnel use the channels and there’s no room for embellishment or small talk. Therefore, you can understand our shock when, rather than the usual stiff conversation that comes over the airwaves, we suddenly heard a yell.
“OH MY GOD!”
And, a moment later:
“OH MY GOD…THE WHOLE THING CAME OFF!”
I thought he was joking with us. He wasn’t. Our slingload had dropped.
We didn’t know the extent of the damage, or what had happened in the first place. We finished taking the shutters down and waited for instructions, since we didn’t know whether or not they would want us to come down. The helicopter went to pick up some roofers from Williams Peak while the helitack at Krassel recovered our stuff and tried to figure out what had happened, since the pilot swore up and down that he hadn’t done it. One of the helitack with us was sweating bullets because she’d weighed the gear and totaled the numbers, and was sure that we hadn’t gone over the weight limits (we had a 1,000 pounds of gear, and the limit was 1,200). She hadn’t erred.
After waiting up at the lookout for over an hour (and finding ticks, unfortunately), they decided to bring us down. We put the flight suits back on and boarded the helicopter when it arrived. After buckling in, we plugged in a wire on our helmets so we could hear the pilot, and he, with incredible levels of shame and remorse, explained what had happened.
Originally, he thought he hadn’t done it. But Bill was a relief pilot, and he wasn’t familiar with the design of the helicopter…more specifically, with the design and placement of the seats, which is important because the seats are small and Bill is big. When he was flying back to Krassel with the roofers from Williams Peak, he shifted in his seat and heard a “KA-THUNK” under the helicopter. He’d accidentally pushed the slingload emergency release lever (located to the left of the seat, coming up from the floor) with his thigh as he repositioned himself. This was really the only hilarious part of the day. The roofers later told us that when Bill realized what had happened, over an hour after the fact, he started flying erratically, yelling “IT WAS MY ASS! IT WAS MY FAT ASS!”
It stopped being funny shortly after, when we reached Krassel and saw the splintered remains of what had once been our stuff. I had somewhat optimistically hoped that our stuff had dropped very early into the flight, maybe onto the airstrip, maybe from 50 feet or so. We’d have broken eggs and some glass, but we’d be okay. It was nothing like that.
Bill had punched the load about a minute into the flight, when he was about a mile and a half down the South Fork canyon, five miles from the Miner’s Peak trailhead, from an estimated elevation of 1,000 feet. The slingload plummeted straight down, hit the huge rocks on the bank of the South Fork, splatted horribly, and then fell into the river. I don’t think there’s any more efficient way to destroy stuff. We lost everything.
Tyler and I spent the next several hours sorting through the fragments of our belongings, which the Krassel crew had rescued and stuffed into garbage bags. Our plastic bins were in tiny splinters. My clothes were splattered with acrylic art paint, and Tyler’s with outhouse paint. The clothes that we’d used to cushion the canned goods and bottles of pasta sauce were sliced to pieces from the broken fragments, and many items of clothing were missing completely, washed away down the river. Everything was covered in granola.
Luckily, because I was only planning to stay a few weeks, my loss was smaller. Still, my electric toothbrush was a twisted wreck, and both my glasses, spare glasses, and sunglasses were lost. I also lost my little crystal I’d carried around the world with me, and my safari dress I’d gotten with Carol and Cody in Kenya was permanently stained with paint. Worst of all, the carved wooden ladles that I’d excitedly carried all the way back from Vietnam as a gift for Tyler (he’s wanted wooden ladles forever) were never found. That was the only thing that made me cry. He never even laid eyes on them.
While my clothes were mostly painted, Tyler’s clothes were mostly ripped or missing. I even had a brand new Utilikilt that I’d never worn ruined with paint, while his well-loved kilt was shredded in front by smashed cans. His hemp pants Buddha statue from Australia were never found. His sheath knife with the antler handle (a gift from his grandfather, after he died) was never found. His gargoyle (Seraph) was missing. His dragon statue (from his parents) was missing. Letters I’d written him were never found. Krassel crew managed to salvage about half of his photographs, but all were bent and horribly damaged from scratching and water. Of course, our ceramics were a total loss as well. Tyler’s little lidded jar for his teabags, his well-loved granola bowl, two plates, the Juneberry bowl with the full moon on it, a new spiral bowl, and the handmade mug with painted mountains I bought him the day we had our first kiss, were all gone. Tyler’s chopsticks from Japan were gone. His Semester at Sea thermos was gone.
The level of destruction was intense. Tyler’s meditation stool, made from heavy wood, was snapped in half. We found no piece of food packaging larger than a quarter. Even our toothpaste tubes were blown out at both ends. And because the load had fallen into the river, every last book we’d brought (estimated value: $1,000+) was destroyed. Of the gear that had filled my car to the ceiling that morning, we salvaged enough to fill one grocery sack.
Instead of staying at Krassel that night, we got in my car and drove back to McCall that night. Before we left, we drove to the river and found the crash site, sure we could find more stuff if we looked hard enough. Tyler scoured the riverbank while I waded into the cold flow and, using an empty jam jar as a lens, searched the river bottom. We were glad we did. Tyler managed to find the Buck knife my Dad gave me, lying on the bottom of the river near the shore, perfectly intact. Although Tyler’s knife never showed up, I did find his grandfather’s whetstone, which eased the hurt of the knife’s loss. We also saved some of the pottery fragments we found, for a memory. Best of all, I found Tyler’ gargoyle (who looks remarkably like a river rock). One ear is gone, but we figured all gargoyles need battle scars.
We were both in sad shape when we left. We were both exhausted and sunburnt (all our sunscreen had exploded), I was cold from floundering around in the river, and my hands were covered from tiny lacerations from sifting through the bags of metal and glass fragments. We drove the long way out because I was worried about my car, thorough Cascade and Donnelly, and got into McCall well after dark. We went to the grocery store and bought the things we needed to get us through the night, like toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, and some crackers and milk. We crashed, drained and devastated. Having something go missing is one thing, but seeing the mutilated fragments of what you lost is somewhat harder.
Happily, things got better for us after that. The owners of our little motel let us use their washing machine for our clothes we salvaged (we did more at a Laundromat the next day), and many of them came out paint-free (although my hiking hat is a sight to behold). We had to make an 18-hour shopping trip to Boise to replace our gear, and all sorts of great things happened. Tyler’s boss let us use his car (mine was temporarily broken). The Boise REI, which was the only REI in the US that still had the frame pack I’d lost, exchanged my twisted, bent, holey frame pack for a brand-new one, and gave me $80 to boot because the new bag was on sale (Gods, I loveREI. The guy at Borders gave us a 30% discount on a big purchase of some replacement books for no reason at all. We found a replacement for Tyler’s exercise ball at a Barnes and Noble, oddly. The Boise Co-Op gave us a member discount even though we weren’t members, loaned Tyler a phone to call his credit card company (which closed his card after a day full of suspiciously expensive activity), patiently waited, and checked us out after they closed the store. We went to REI, Target, Old Navy, Linens n’ Things, Borders, Barnes and Noble, the Boise Co-Op, and WinCo, replacing all the food, and the minimum of gear and books. And finally, because every hotel and motel in McCall, Donnelly, and Cascade was full (due to a wedding and a family reunion) except for one, we stayed at a fancy resort hotel that night with living room, Jacuzzi, and fireplace…on a government rate of $70. Everything went right for us that day.
Until we flew back up to the lookout on the 27th, we spent out time trying to replace some gear, repacking, and making an exhaustive itemized list of every object we’d lost and an estimated age and value. Right now, we’re still waiting to hear back from the helicopter’s insurance company and the US government. The good news is that we should be reimbursed for the goods we lost. The bad news is that they may not give us the full value of what we lost (which was a LOT), and that a lot of the losses were irreplaceable. But we’re hoping for the best.
And that’s why I’ve been a little tired lately. I’m hoping to learn all the right lessons from this.
In fine troglodyteking style, I offer everyone who finished this entry a cookie.