I spent my last few days in Moscow frantically packing and moving out of my apartment. Tyler and I met at Zack’s house (Zack is our grad-student-boss, and is very very cool) on a Sunday morning to pack Der Truck (a humongous green UI Suburban), and drive down….the three of us and Drake, Zack’s black lab. We will have a 4th person in our team this summer (CJ), but he’s not on the first stint and I haven’t met him yet.
It takes us 23 hours to drive down to Los Alamos, starting at 6:30 am Sunday and arriving at 5:30 am Monday morning. We greet Tyler’s family and nap for a few hours, then take off down to Silver City (arriving late afternoon), so we can meet Penny in time. She’ll be flying to Tucson and driving over to Silver City.
We have two cell phone numbers for Penny, neither of which turns out to be the right number for the phones she actually has. We get to Silver City and cannot contact her. We check into the Super 8 after checking every hotel in the city to see if she’s there. She isn’t. It turns out that she left late, stayed late in Tucson shopping at Costco with Lisa, and then drove to Silver City. So we sat around Silver City for 4 days before we left for the trip…two of those days were not preparatory, and could have been spent relaxing in Los Alamos.
For most of the summer, it will just be Tyler, Zack, CJ, Drake, and I. However, this research project (on fire recovery) spans several universities and involves many many people, all gathering information to be pooled and shared later. This first trip is notable because it was to be a cooperative trip (and a sort of getting-to-know-you thing); something we’d all do together before splitting up. Accordingly, this was our team for the 11 or 12 days we were out:
*Zack, my grad-student-boss-man
*Penny, a UI professor, one of the country’s top fire ecologists and Zack and Tyler’s advisor (additionally, Zack’s boss)
*Matt, a grad-type-boss-man from U Montana in Missoula.
*Cassie, Matt’s assistant from Missoula
*Lisa, some person from Missoula
*Anne, some person from somewhere (she was only in for a few days)
We also had
*Ceci, a married couple that are top forest service workers, but also mule packers, and would be packing us in.
Now, here’s where the insanity begins.
A day or two before we head out, we drive to Wendel and Ceci’s house to help pack food. When we arrive, there is a note informing us that they’ve gone to lunch and will be back. So we wait around in the 97 degree heat until they do, an hour and a half later. THEN we pack.
Problem #1 is with the mode of packing. Tyler and I learned to pack with manties, which are large canvas sheets that you fold in a special way to waterproof what’s inside, then rope together with quick-release knots to form a compact, tight bundle to be hitched on the animal. The alternative is panniers, which are basically metal or canvas bags that hang off the saddle and are filled with whatever. Panniers are faster, but manties are more secure. Packing a mantied load is like hiking with a well-fitted frame pack. Packing panniers is like taking shopping bags into the woods.
Now, when mule packing, here are three things you must remember. First, loads on either side of the animal should be balanced, and generally no more than 80 lbs. Second, nothing should poke the animal. Third, nothing should rattle.
They had Tyler and I pack the food in metal panniers and steel ammo boxes.
First, that’s a lot of added weight. Second, it inherently rattles because the boxes themselves are metal, and are generally being stocked with items that are also metal. The weights were such that we hit the limit when the boxes were ¾ full, which means we had to pack EXTRA stuff (light things, like bags) into the boxes to pad things, and to take up space so stuff wouldn’t shift in transit. Manties do not have this problem.
We DID manty some things. We made two bundles of soft stuff, like clothes bags and sleeping bags. However, Wendel tied these, and he did it curiously. First, he tied the piles together with rough twine before even wrapping the load. This shouldn’t be necessary if you wrap the load right, but it also puts uneven stress points on the loads. I told him this later, and he said it was absolutely necessary because if he didn’t, stuff could come loose if branches along the trail pulled the manty open. THIS is because (I watched), Wendel packs his loads with the knots and folds on the outside, where stuff can get snagged, rather than against the pack saddle, so the outer face is smooth. Then he wrapped the manty loosely, in such a way that it would not shed water. The manties were also strangely cubical.
Problem 2 is the stuff we packed. This was a huge one. Penny bought all the food for everyone on this trip, spending $1,500 at the Tucson Costco. Distributed, that means that I’ll have about $150 taken out of my paycheck, and I probably ate about $30 worth. Why so expensive? Let’s look. Here’s a sample of the food we packed out.
*3 bottles of Merlot
*1 bottle of Chardonnay
*2 bottles of whiskey
*3 bottles of apricot brandy
*a case of beer
*Several bagged salads that had gone bad at the time we packed them, owing to the days in the heat
*Several bags of carrots, also bad
*About 12 bags of 6 bagels each, 11 of which went bad
*9 boxes of Nabisco crackers, in the boxes, shrink-wrapped together (packing has to be packed out
*Chocolate covered espresso beans, some orange things, and Dulce de Leches, melted and resolidified into an inedible mass in some Tupperware.
*2 Tillamook baby loafs of cheese, which must weigh 5 lbs apiece
*1 8-inch wheel of Brie
*5 cans of kalamata olives, for hor’duerves.
*Several bottles of half-and-half, for coffee.
*All sorts of steaks
We had much more food than this, but that was some of the highlights. This was extremely annoying in light of the fact that I don’t eat meat, and don’t drink coffee or alcohol. A lot of the other foods were things I liked perfectly well, but simply had no business being packed into a hot wilderness for 12 days. There was so much food that after packing us in for the 20 mile trip, Wendel had to pack out, and pack IN a second load…and then pack out, and return later to pack us back out. Three 40-mile trips over rough, canyony desert is no joke.
Our supplies were also incredible. 5 or 6 metal cookpots, a 2-burner propane stove and 3 jugs of propane (the barbeque-size jugs), 2 frying pans, a propane lantern we didn’t even assemble, 2 coffee strainers…the list goes on and on.
As we finished up and got ready to leave for the day and get ready for the trip the next morning, Penny politely requested that we try to keep our personal gear to a minimum, as we didn’t have much space.
3 people didn’t even bring a tent.