Apples, Bears, and Autumn in General
It's shaping up to be a beautiful one here. Nearly everything is changing color and the blending is beautiful; deep blue sky, the yellow of the elders, alders, and aspens, the green of the firs, the red of the ninebark and red-osier dogwood, and the dusky violet of elderberries everywhere. We had our first frost just a few nights ago, bringing my garden and associated jungle of tomatoes to a screeching halt, but not before we made out with buckets of produce. Our acorn squash didn't get much bigger than tennis balls...I should plant earlier next year.
We've had a bear in the neighborhood recently, and a relatively big one at that. We haven't actually seen him, but he makes his presence known with broken branches in the fruit trees and enormous piles of poop. We set up a remote camera in Jim and Holly's yard this last week and got a few good shots of him (or her...we don't know). We first knew he was in the area when he raided the pear tree and shook down a fair amount of fruit last weekend, spurring us to haul out the apple boxes and the long picker and systematically strip all of the trees in one afternoon. We did the pear tree, the red by the Taylor Cabin and the two reds in the orchard, and the two greens outside our cabin.
I don't know why harvesting fruit is so much fun, but it really is. We now have three huge boxes of apples in our bathroom, and I've made apple cobblers three times this last week. We couldn't even come close to getting all the apples off our two green trees, so the bear's hit them again the last two nights, leaving piles of bruised apples and fresh green leaves on the ground in the morning. The deer gorge themselves on whatever he leaves inside the fence, and I kick the rest out into the pasture for the mules. The fruit is so juicy it makes them all foam at the mouth.
Gunshots and Carcasses
Last Monday, we heard seven gunshots up Cliff Creek. They were spread out a bit, so when I heard the first one I had enough time to get down into the pasture and really pinpoint the rest. It is hunting season here, so we've had lots of air traffic for the local outfitters, and a few visitors that are into bowhunting, but these were the first gunshots I'd heard. We had a barbecue later that evening, and I could see headlamps on the flat next to Cliff Creek, so I figured they'd gotten whatever they were aiming for.
The hunters never came over to see us, so yesterday I decided to hike up Cliff Creek and see if I could find whatever they'd shot. The canyon is narrow and very brushy, but it's simpler to find a carcass if you know what to look for. In the desert, you look for vultures. Here, you look for magpies (and bushes or trees covered in magpie poop, or whitewash, indicating they've been busy there for some time). I found the magpies about three-quarters of the way up Cliff Creek, crossed the creek, sidehilled for a bit, and found what I was looking for.
It was a bull elk, now completely reduced to a juicy red skeleton (and therefore thankfully almost odorless). The legs had been removed (probably packed out with the hunters) and the rack had been sawed away as well. There was a well-gnawed scapula a few feet away, which was odd, since it's a challenging piece to debone, but so light there's no need to do it at the kill site. The gut pile had been reduced to nothing but a small mound of stomach contents (grass). The magpies were cleaning up what was left, and we're betting that the wolves that had been howling nearby a few nights before had visited the site too.
I'd called Holly and Tyler to come take a look at it, and Holly showed us how to reconstruct parts of the event. Interestingly, there was a very distinct blood trail leading straight up the hill, so we decided to follow it up as far as we could...which ended up being about 600 feet up a talus slope. The rocks (Hoodoo Quartzite) had black lichens on certain exposed surfaces, so it was easy to see where rocks had been overturned, and patches of hair and sticky bloodstains occured every six feet or so. It appeared that the elk had been shot above the second bench and had basically fallen down the entire mountainside. Ouch.
After that we sidehilled it over to the west knob for a nice view of Taylor, I found some obsidian flakes from the last time a Tukadeka (northern Shoshone) had been working points in the area, Holly showed us some wolf toenails she'd found with Kia, and we headed back. And people say wilderness is boring.
A few years ago, Tyler and I worked for a grad student on a project in the Gila wilderness. It went okay, but we didn't always get along very well with our supervisor, and I always felt like the summer ended on a bad note. I always thought that we were being treated badly (personal remarks and such), but over long periods of time, it's hard not to feel like it was your fault too, and that maybe the remarks that were made were true.
We would see him in the college from time to time after that, but we never talked much. I wrote him a nice email the morning of his defense and wished him luck, but he never replied. He eventually moved on, we did the same, and I tried to not think about it very much.
Earlier this summer, we found out that there was a possibility that we might be getting a RAWS here (Remote Automated Weather Station). Our current weather station only monitors temperature and precipitation, which we have to manually record ourselves every day at 0800 and call in to the National Weather Service. Our other weather station (in the lower pasture) is slightly more advanced (it has a datalogger), but it's not operational right now. This new RAWS records lots of other things (like wind speed, wind direction, and fuels) and uploads it automatically by satellite. Shiny. It's an $18,000 piece of equipment, but someone pulled some strings so we could get it for free. And guess who was coming to install it? Right.
I decided to take the high road. I was going to be nice and helpful and excited and play like nothing bad had ever happened, which is what I did. I greeted him at the plane with a big hug, Tyler helped him install the RAWS all day, and I aired out some of our old jokes that night when we had a potluck with the directors (and I made a bunch of food).
Then, that night, after we showed him to his cabin and got him settled in, out of the clear blue sky, he started apologizing for what an asshole he'd been all those years ago. I was totally blown away because I had expected nothing of the sort. We accepted his apology and reassured him that it was all good, but wow. I feel so validated now about those little things that had been bugging me in the back of my mind. I feel so light.
And Then There Was a Fire
So, the next day, the RAWS was installed and he had left, and we were going about our business as usual. It was cold and we were doing some burn piles. I was in the office working on plant labels.
At about 1600, one of the directors came on the radio saying they needed help right away. His voice was strained and I instantly thought he'd been hurt (he was chopping wood earlier), so I bolted out of the office and sprinted up the hill to their cabin as fast as I could go...
...and turned the corner, and the whole hillside behind the Taylor cabin was in flames.
There had been a burn pile behind that cabin started hours ago, to get rid of the inevitable slash that piles up around here. It had been closely watched all day and was just embers at that point, but when the person watching it went in to use the bathroom, a strong gust of wind suddenly kicked up and blew a coal into the steep, grassy hillside behind the cabin, beyond the circle of earth around the fire that had been soaked with a hose.
Four factors worked in the fire's favor. One, it was right at that point that the calm day became very windy. Two, the hill has a very steep grade, so it's easy for flames to lick upward. Three, it was dry ground with dry grass and dead annuals. Four, nobody was there when the fire started, so it was already well established when it was first spotted.
There were five of us on the property, and everyone raced to help. Holly worked the fire's east flank to prevent it from burning the watertank shed or the brand new RAWS (the fire came within a meter of it). Tyler and the IDFG person went to the top of the hill and stopped it from crossing the ridge. Jim and I worked the fire's west flank, which ended up placing us right in the path of the wind, which led to one or two scary moments when the smoke and flames came right at us. Grass fires don't burn very hot, but they move very fast.
We all had shovels and used them to scratch firebreaks or beat the flames out. There was a 1,000 gallon water tank right next to the fire, but it's gravity-driven and most of the fire was above the tank, so that didn't help. I don't have a lot of capacity for aerobic exercise and after just a few minutes of running around on that steep hill, my heart was pounding and my lungs were screaming for breath (not an exaggeration: my breathing really did sound like screaming). With the speed of the fire and the strength of the wind, I was sure we were going to lose the fire and it would end up burning the entire ridge. Luckily, between the five of us and with some good teamwork, we were able to slow it and contain the leading edges. Once it was slowed, we could focus on the smaller flare-ups and were able to put out the last flames and douse the hot spots.
We ended up working on it for about an hour and a half. The fire only burned about an acre and a half, but it felt like more because of the steepness of the hill. I used the hose from the water tank to repeatedly drench a burning stump in the middle of the hill, which burned so hot that it would just convert the water into steam and reignite. There was also a tree at the base of the hill that took a bad hit owing to the stack of stovewood at the base. We drenched that pretty well and are hoping the tree will live. The woodshed, with about 6 cords of wood in it, was fine (the fire came within inches of it). The RAWS was fine. The climate sensor button in the middle of the hillside, which nobody noticed until the slope was blackened and bare, was fine.
I was exhausted for the rest of the night, and my chest felt like it had been squeezed with a vice. My lungs kept making a squeaky, crackling noise when I exhales, like Pop-Rocks (Tyler said it was called 'rails'). I felt awful. But I took the next day off for sick leave (my first all year) and finished off a bottle of expectorant, and I'm feeling much better now. Jim wants me tested for asthma. I don't think I have asthma, but I'll look into it.
And that's that. We got pretty lucky.
Today I made scones, French bread, and whole wheat chocolate chip banana muffins. I am very tired of working in the kitchen now (it is very small, we have no dishwasher, and Pan keeps wanting to put his paws in the flour). However, happiness is a cabin that smells like muffins, a warm cracking fire in the wood stove, flannel jammies, and a cat curled up against your back.