women

The Pack Test

“So, I’m talking to a real firefighter?”

Well, sort of.

Two weeks ago I became a real Wildland Emergency Firefighter.

Well, sort of.

You see, the positive things about living off the grid, out of a city without a municipal handshake of sorts are plentiful. You can build how you build, live how you live and matters are most often handled within the community.

The negative things about living off the grid don’t necessarily have to be negatives at all but they do have to be dealt with.

For example: We live in rural Alaska. Prior to moving here, I didn’t realize how great of a threat fire is to this land (though it seems a bit obvious now) and how different fighting fire in Alaska is to fighting fire down South. And so the questions arise: In this massive area that we call home, full of ready and willing fuels, how shall we deal with fire?

Because we will be the first boots on the ground.

Without a local fire department just naturally occurring as easily as a local library or hospital seemed to (which I know is untrue, a lot of work goes into that infrastructure but it does often go unseen) when I lived on the grid it comes down to organizing together to create a first line of knowledge and defense.

This is how I became part of the Volunteer Fire Department.

Not in 100 years (because really, a million? I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t think of it in that long) would I have thought I would be a firefighter. Though I grew up running with some of the local Volunteer Firefighters and hanging out in the firehouse and learning a few tricks of the trade, for the most part, my understanding of firefighting boiled down to the level of dalmatians and fire poles (neither of which we have here. Dang!).

But when I moved here accidentally and fell in love with the Fire Chief of the town, I inadvertently became a part of the VFD (Volunteer Fire Department). I helped to organize fundraisers and sold swag at events, I spread the word about fire meetings every Wednesday and helped The Chief wherever else I could.

But attend a meeting?

No, gracias.

The thing was, when I arrived, the meetings sounded more like a boys club than a training session. And that’s not necessarily because that’s what in fact they were. I conjured up an idea before laying foot on the VFD soil and decided in that conjuring that I was plenty happy to support from the sidelines. Yay Chief!

However, last Spring The Chief suggested I join the team.

“Of all the people in The Valley, you’re the most likely to be in the truck with me when I have to respond to a fire. It would make sense if you knew how to help.”

 

 

 

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Well, me and Cinda would be the most likely riders in the truck. Time for training, Jones!

 

 

Dang, very true and fair enough.

And so I joined my first meeting and spent the Summer learning about hose lays and how to draft water to fill the tanks and how to get water onto a fire. But it all felt very far away and somewhat unreal.

Until two events happened:

The first (read about it here) was when a controlled burn was started right down the road from us, yet was left unattended and we awoke to worried phone calls that were in fact very valid. A few hours later we had the fire out and all was well but the very real potential of our valley going up in smoke because of a small fire turning big hit home that day.

The second (read about it here) was when a burn started about 17 miles away and seemed to grow and grow over night from consistent winds. Just as the fire truly started to get people shaking in their XtraTuffs, the Department of Forestry sent in water planes and then as if the planes had simultaneously been putting out fire and doing a rain dance, the rains came and they didn’t stop for a month. However, had they not come and the winds not stopped blowing, the fire jumping the river to our little hamlet was a very real possibility.

Both of these events made me glad I had learned what I had learned per The Chief’s suggestion but that was as far as that would go.

Right?

Apparently not.

This year there was a new infusion of suggestion. Why not get your Red Card?

Me?

A Red Card?

A Red Card is an actual red card, hence its nickname which is actually called an Incident Qualification Card. It signifies that its holder is has been trained and tested both physically and mentally and has passed said tests to qualify as a Wildland Firefighter.

Me?

The Chief, again coming in with the air of reason, suggested I consider it because of our unique situation. Since the VFD is in fact a VFD with huge emphasis on the V (Volunteer) it can be difficult to incentivize people to acquire the certifications needed to keep the VFD earning funds. Our community has to be able to earn a living and counting on Fire as employment is a gamble.

It goes like this:

The fire truck is hired by the DOF (Department of Forestry) to run patrols.

The truck makes money on these patrols and thus, this is how the VFD makes money.

Other than fundraisers, this is the VFD’s only income.

AND…

The VFD truck is only hired up if there is High fire danger.

AND…

The truck can only be driven by someone with the correct qualifications .

AND…

The Chief is the only person in The Valley as of now who has the qualifications and is available.

AND…

It can only be driven if he has a Red Card-ed person in the truck with him.

AND…

No one in The Valley with a Red Card would be available this Summer leaving the truck unable to make money, the VFD unable to make money and The Chief unable to patrol.

Quite the pickle, eh?

Thankfully (although not for the funds of the VFD which are used to procure firefighting necessities like trucks and hoses and pumps and gear) it has been a mild weathered year with rains throughout most of June and July.

 

 

 

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The upside of a rainy Summer? Double rainbows, of course. Oh, Alaska, you are a beauty.

 

 

 

Yet after only one day of sun, the roads dry out and the threat of fire starts to return.

So, it was suggested that current members of the VFD, if willing and able, get our Red Cards.

Willing?

Yes.

Able?

…Gulp.

 

The classroom portion gave me pause because of the time commitment (40 hours of schooling plus testing to pass) but I knew that if I could find a way to carve out time for play then I certainly could find a way to carve out 40 nooks and crannies of hours for the good of the community.

No, the classes gave me pause for time but what scared me was the physical testing.

Though not at first.

In fact, I hadn’t even worried about it until two nights before while working at The Restaurant.

“So, you’re taking the Pack Test tomorrow?”

“Yep!”

“What’s the Pack Test set-up again?” (the physical test)

“Oh I think 3 miles in 45 minutes with a 45lb. pack.”

“Oh!”

“Oh?”

And then I started putting it into perspective. I had walked to work earlier that day and I had left a few minutes later than planned so I had been hustling. Lou was with me and was, as usual, leading the pack but I was at a close clip behind her. The only things slowing me down were the terrain (bumpy, rocky, driius filled) and my super-heavy backpack.

It weighed maybe 20 pounds.

And it took me over an hour to get there.

 

 

 

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Stopping to take pictures of cloud formations like this beauty may have slowed me down a bit, but not by much.

 

 

Uh oh. This was not adding up. 2+2 was not equaling 4.

The walk the next day was shorter but only by half a mile and the pack was over two times as heavy and the walk to work that day had been my first exercise since strep throat had taken me down the week before.

…Gulp.

So, the night before the test I stayed home (strapped to my couch by copious amounts of online work to do that kept me in) despite a wedding party and a band playing that night, made a good meal and went to bed…a little worried.

The next morning I woke up early, ready to get my head in the game. The Pack Test would be first at 9am followed by a Field Day of learning and testing our skills. The Chief left an hour before me to meet up with our friend W who was leading the Field Day and to set up the course we would test on. I met The Chief there an hour later with little butterflies fluttering about in my tummy.

I realized it had been years since I’d put my body through any sort of testing, a revelation that seems strange to me as someone who’s been a personal trainer. But time flies. It’s funny the stories we tell ourselves like “I often run races.” which was once true but not true anymore. And so I tried to channel those days. I even put on my old personal training/10k run watch to be able to check my time against the mile markers.

As soon as we had all filled out our paperwork, it was time to fit our vests. I weighed myself, put on the vest and weighed myself again. Somehow, over night I had forgotten the whole 45 pound aspect and had rounded it up to 50.

Mine is spot on!

Whoops.

The Chief tried to help fit the vest to my body but they were all made for someone much bigger and it wiggled as I walked, back and forth, back and forth like a porcupine’s gait.

We all lined up. We’d have 22 minutes and 30 seconds to make it to the half-way mark (if we were going to cut it that close) but my goal was to make it there with time to spare.

The walk was on flat-ish ground void of vegetation but marred by potholes and rocks and heavy (for us) morning traffic which we tried to avoid as much as possible while keeping as straight a line as we could.

Every second counted.

Cinda and two other VFD pooches (still no dalmatians) lead the charge. As we started the slow incline to the historic town and started making sense of the distance, we all realized that the half-way mark would be at the end of a steep (but short) uphill. The course was supposed to be flat.

Thanks, honey.

Nevertheless, we powered on.

In, 2, 3, 4 Out 2, 3, 4…

I fell into a rhythm of breath I could rely on and talked to my legs.

You can do this.

At the high-five half-way point we started our decline. We were at 21 minutes and 30 seconds. Just one minute ahead of half-time. If we wanted to make it we could not slow down at all.

Keep the pace.

In, 2, 3, 4 Out 2, 3, 4…

And then, at a certain point, I lost it that rhythm. I looked down at my legs with encouragement but also in bewilderment: can’t you go any faster? I felt like a cartoon version of myself with little flippers for legs. I was pushing but they just didn’t want to go any faster and the test declares that running is an automatic fail. The point is to see if you can haul yourself at a quick extended clip out of harm’s way.

I looked ahead of me wishing for long legs. Most of the time I enjoy being pint-sized but sometimes, it really slows me down.

The time was ticking away.

30 minutes.

35 minutes.

40 minutes.

41 minutes.

At 41 minutes I could clearly see our end goal. The Chief and our instructor were standing, ready and waiting to congratulate us.

I again looked down at my flippers which now felt as if they were flipping through mud.

Come on guys! We can do this. We are so close.

You know how when you’re waiting for it to be an appropriate hour to eat ice cream and the minutes just seem to melt by in glue-like fashion? It takes forever. Well, this was the opposite. The seconds were flashing, every time I looked at my watch, one I had looked at for years to encourage myself, to push myself and countless others to go just that much farther out of our comfort zones, it seemed to be betraying me, speeding up time.

42 minutes.

43 minutes.

2 minutes left.

I put my head down and leaned into the weight vest with the last bits of push that I had to make my leggies go faster and…

We made it.

43 minutes and 20 seconds.

A record?

I think not.

A pass?

Why yes, yes I think so!

The Chief and W congratulated all of us as everyone came in under the 45 minute cut-off and The Chief quickly removed the now very wet from sweating vest from my back. I felt like I could fly without it.

Before I realized it, my heart rate was back to normal and I felt great. For an “Arduous” test it hadn’t been all that bad.

Right?

The rest of the day was for the Field Day. We learned everything from how to deploy a Fire Shelter (which is far less sturdy than it sounds, think more like a big baked potato wrapped in foil versus a building) to how to effectively use a Pulaski to deter the spread of fire under and above ground. We worked on different hose lay formations and safety procedures and about those who had perished because they had missed even just one of those checklists or procedures. As the day went along, it felt less like learning about something and more about becoming part of it. This elusive idea of becoming a Wildland Firefighter was becoming more real as each hour went by. We were about to get our Red Cards (pending my completion of online work still). We helped one another remember our training and worked together to divvy out tasks and melded into a team in a way prior training hadn’t forced us to. Even though the day and the test weren’t as long or as grueling as say Boot Camp, that same sense of belonging and camaraderie that comes from completing something together as a team came through.

By the end of the day, The Chief was beaming. He finally would have help if and when he needed it. The VFD would make money and he wouldn’t be the sole person responsible to make that happen. I could see a weight lifted off of his shoulders and I felt happy to be a small part of that.

That night we went home to recoup and I felt it…

The soreness.

It started creeping in like the cold comes through the cracks in the door at 30 below.

I wasn’t even going to be sore though, remember?

Wrong.

 

 

 

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I felt like this dandelion. I’m pretty sure I looked like it too.

 

 

 

It should definitely be labeled “Arduous”.

3 days later I was still compromised while walking upstairs. Perhaps the walk hadn’t winded me but carrying a pack only 15 pounds shy of half of my weight (thanks to the extra 5 pounds I had forgotten about) had certainly put my muscles to the test and still…

I had passed.

I could rest easy. It was over (minus some remaining coursework) and a renewed sense of possibility lay before me, one that I never had considered in my life: I could now go out on a fire.

Hearing about The Chief’s days on the fireline had always seemed so far removed. Walking for miles and miles with a 50 pound pack of gear and a 40 pound jug of water, sleeping in the open and eating meals out of a pouch? Taxing your body so that he would come back two belt loops slimmer and 5 pounds heavier? It sounded super-human and in truth it still does. But now, I was qualified to offer myself up to that type of work.

And so, when my girlfriend called and asked “So I’m talking to a firefighter?”

I responded in truth: Well, sort of.

There’s a part of me that’s always lurked beneath the non-competitive exterior that is competitive beyond all belief with myself. Could I do it? Could I hack it?

I guess we will have to see.

Until then, I’ll work on the knowledge, work on the practical and maybe take a few more hikes with that 5 pound heavier than it should be 50 pound pack.

And then, well, who knows?

And maybe by next year that extra 5 pounds will only feel like an extra 2.

Here’s hoping (and huffing and puffing to the finish line again).

My Mama is Coming to Town

This here Summer will be my 3rd in our little hamlet in Alaska. As my 3rd time around the never-setting sun I’m realizing the obvious: no Summer is the same. Every year, the faces change just as fast as the scenery. You expect to see the familiarity of last year, and just like that…it’s started anew. The glacier changes, the wormholes collapse or are created, the trees leaf out and a whole new slew of faces come into your world, a world that in turn becomes theirs as well.

 

 

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This must be the place.

 

 

And this year, a new face will be joining them: my Mama’s.

From the time I flew the coop out into the big unknown at 17, I’ve lived all over the place. Yet, in every place, my Mom had either moved me in or immediately come to visit. New apartment in Berkeley? She’d help me give the place a good scrub a dub dub. Living in Italy? Well, she’ll just have to come by for Thanksgiving.

There’s never been a time in my life where my Mom hasn’t seen where I live for longer than a month.

And now it’s verging on a 3rd year.

But fret not because…

My Mama’s coming to Town.

 

 

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As I’m sure you’ve noticed, this place isn’t just some sort of pop on in location. No, the journey North requires some preparation and logistics and in the heat and hectic mess of Summer planning this hasn’t been my a strong suit and so, we sat down this Winter to plan away. And now, my Mama doesn’t have to live my life through pictures and stories. She can experience it on her own.

My Mama arrives in less than 3 weeks. Since I’ve never had a visitor out here, I didn’t know what goes along with the anticipation of a guest’s arrival but now I feel it. Every walk I take, or adventure I have, I am thinking of her.

Will she be comfortable?

Will this incline be O.K?

Will these flowers still be blooming?

Will she see a bear?

Will she think an outdoor shower is awesome or atrocious?

Will the Weather Gods smile upon us?

Will she love this place like I do?

 

 

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All of these questions swim around me constantly as I wonder what I’ve forgotten to wonder about and worry that there’s a detail I’ve left out. But the last question wrestles with my mind the most. It’s a question I’d never asked myself before.

Before it didn’t matter if she liked where I lived because I only stayed for a year or two in the far away places and the closer by places were automatically approved due to distance alone. But this place? Well it’s not exactly a hop, skip and a jump away now is it and it’s clearly not a life that everyone leads.

And so in all honesty, I was nervous that she might not like it.

This place is not for everyone and I’m fine with that (except for when it comes to my Mom). It’s why the local businesses over-hire and why we aren’t surprised when we hear of someone leaving in the night without even a note to explain why. We know why. It’s a hard life but the hard is what makes it good (“A League of their Own” reference, anyone?). Well, it’s what makes it good to me at least.

But the hard is also what makes it messy. The hard is what causes a pile of Freely Acquired Just In Case tires to sit on our property, out of use for years until the day comes when someone needs them for a garden project. The hard is what makes it so that our house doesn’t have siding but does keep us cozy and warm. The hard is what makes each challenge more challenging and thus, each success that much more rewarding.

But it isn’t always pretty.

As a tidy-upper, not quite clean-freak but definitely clean and orderly appreciating lady, the disarray of life in the woods can be overwhelming at times. I can’t tell you how many times The Chief and I have walked outside to do some tidying up and have both let out simultaneous sighs at the plethora of projects to be done.

And when I was just visiting, before living here, I didn’t totally get why all of those projects weren’t already done.

Now, I do.

But still sometimes, my tidying tendencies get the best of me. I want to just tie everything up in a pretty bow and you know where I get that from?

My Mama.

And now she’s coming to visit. To see the sometimes un-tidy life we live in the woods. The life that’s not for everyone. The life that some take one look at and run in the other direction. The life that I almost didn’t live because I too was tempted to run at first.

 

 

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It’s a big place, constantly changing, constantly surprising

 

 

Perhaps her experience will be that of love at first sight. Perhaps just the opposite. Either way, it’s her experience to have and no degree of my wanting her to love it here can effect that.

And that scared the hell out of me.

At first.

And so I called her and told her my worries. I want my Mom to love where I live, not simply because of a tendency to seek for her approval but also because I want her to want to come visit me. I want her to want to visit this place and me. It makes the very long journey fly by if the end location is somewhere you actually love to be. And to all these fears she, in her perfect Mama rationale stated this:

“I’ll love it because you are there.”

If that’s not the most quintessential Mommy-Mom-Sentence I’ve ever heard then I don’t know what is. And you know what? It worked perfectly (I’m a sucker for Mommy-Mom-Sentences).

And so, since then (and especially since she bought her ticket) I’ve stopped the worry. Sure, I’m doing a faster shuffle these days trying to tidy, trying to make sure things are in order and that the hard life is as easy as it can be but I also know that she’ll love it purely because of the fact that we will be together. And so will I. Yes, there will be bug bites and slop buckets and outhouse and all the other discomforts that go along with a non-modern life but they will pale in comparison to the awesomeness that is my Mom being in our home.

Finally, I’ll be able to truly share my life with her, instead of bits and snippets and stories and my interpretations. She’ll have her own take on it all, she’ll know my friends, my work, my walks I take every time I call her and she’ll see our life as it is here, instead of our patched together life in California where we move every week and live out of suitcases.

It’s been a bizarre thing to have her not know who or where I am talking about and I can’t wait to bridge the gap.

She’ll finally know our life.

She’ll finally know and I can’t wait.

 

 

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That’s my Mama!

Slow n’ Steady Wins the Race (and Doesn’t Have to Buy New Pants)

You know what isn’t fun?

Tight pants.

Too tight pants.

Now don’t get me wrong, my wardrobe is as simple as a super hero’s, same thing, different day and littered with “yoga” pants which yes, you are right, are tight.

But not too tight.

This Winter, I returned to too tight pants.

I can hear the easy cheesey joke in the back of all of our minds right now…”Can pants ever be too tight?”

Well yes, jokester. Yes, they can.

And they were.

Apparently, California had been even more kind to me than I had expected and although I couldn’t figure out where it was hiding, some of California had stowed away. In my pants.

Wow, I am really leaving an opening for the sleazy jokes today.

Have at it.

Jokes aside, returning to our cabin in the woods felt like being reunited with a long lost love. I was in a delightful mood and absolutely in adoration of our little abode the morning after we arrived. I decided I wanted to see more of this place I had missed and venture out to see how things had fallen into Winter since I’d left.

I went upstairs to dig out my Winter Walking ski pants (a little less insulated than my super insulated bibs) from my Winter Clothes bin. Then, as I do every single Winter (and by every I mean one singular past Winter) I donned a pair of thick underlayers, top and bottom and went to put on my Winter Walkers.

Not so fast. In fact quite slow. As the pants approached my hips, I felt a sudden resistance I’d never felt before, as if a small child was below me, pulling the pants in the opposite direction. I looked around, searching for an answer to this opposition.

No answer.

I tugged a little harder and did the shimmy-shake-jiggle-wiggle-jump dance every woman knows (and based on the near legging like quality of men’s fashion these days, I can assume many men know this as well) and finally…

Up they went. I buttoned the double button in a hurry, as if the pants were about to split in all directions at the seams if I didn’t get them secured. And then, I just stood there, pondering my situation for a moment.

What in the heck?

When I had bought my Winter Walkers (which I had bought to use for solely that Summer in Alaska) it had been  the middle of Summer (typically my heaviest time of year. Oh BBQs, how I love thee!) and still I had tried them on with a pair of jeans underneath and still I’d had room to spare.

I felt like a sausage and so I quickly decided it must be the leggings.

Off came the WW (Winter Walkers) and off came the leggings. This was sure to work. I donned the WW and…

Still tight.

What in the heck?!

I immediately huffed off to downstairs. Each step was less comfortable than I remembered as I bent my knee to make the journey. The knee and the bum simultaneously requesting space in the pants made for quite tight lodgings. I found the Chief.

“What in the heck?!”

“What is it?”

I love him.

Despite my sausage-y self, he was quick to see no fault in my appearance. I assured him that these pants had not been so tight before we left three months earlier. He assured me that everything was just fine.

And so, off I went on a much needed (emotionally and apparently, physically as well) walk into the woods to see how things in the woods had changed and to ponder how I had changed without noticing. As I unzipped the side pockets to give my thighs a little more breathing room I broke into laughter. This would be how things were until I slimmed back down again. We had just spent a huge chunk of change in Town to last us through the next few months and there was no way that I was purchasing a new pair of pants when these were perfectly fine (aside from the tightness factor).

They would have to do.

 

 

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Mornin’, sunrise.

 

The funny thing is, just a few short years ago I would have spent the entirety of that walk planning. None of it would have been spent laughing with myself. My happiness would have been dependent upon my size. I would have decided what I could and could not eat on that walk, how much I had to workout and how fast I expected to lose the weight. I would have spoken unkindly to myself in my head, cursing the cookies and despising the desserts.

Instead, I thought back. Sure, I guess I had slowed down on working out the last few weeks we had been away. The weather had turned from Fall to Winter seemingly overnight and the rain had come and stayed. We were living in an Airstream which, while beautiful did not provide much space for my daily yoga/pilates/random moves to feel healthy routine and without a way to dry off I didn’t want to send Cinda and I off into the rain before work each day. In addition, our home cooked meals had been few and far between. Overall, our life had lacked ryhthym and consistency and the healthy traits it normally holds and thus lay the culprits of this too tight pants dilemma. Oh well. Lesson learned.

Upon returning home, I was grateful to slip out of the pants, and by slip I mean peel them off. And then…

I retired them.

 

 

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Burn, baby, burn.

 

Just kidding. No fire pants here.

I switched to my roomier bibs (basically insulated overalls) and said “goodbye” to the pants.

For now.

In my bibs, I was able to make all the maneuvers I needed. Sure, the bibs themselves were even a bit tight but they were nothing like the second skin of the WW pants.

And so, the months went by. I started doing my Winter Chores, and living the Winter lifestyle and slowly but surely, the pants began to fit. I would pull them out of retirement every few weeks and check.

The first time, they fit a little looser.

The next time I could comfortably wear leggings under them.

And eventually, I donned jeans under them.

It took me most of the Winter to get to where I had started last year and if I had said that years ago, I would have been furious with myself. I would have ridiculed myself, wondering why I hadn’t tried harder, eaten better, eaten less and gotten fitter faster but this year was full of high-fives with myself and The Chief.

It had been a kinder journey. Without a mirror to gauge how I looked, I focused on how I felt and the process was slower because of it.

 

 

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Snow mirrors // Shadow Cinda // Perspective

 

Some days I was ready to jump into an hour of sweat inducing, heart pumping exercise, other days I was in pain and didn’t want to push it. I had setbacks and steps forward but throughout, I was happy with myself, my worth wasn’t based on my weight.  and eventually I got to a place where I felt myself return to my personal normal.

Slow and steady had won the race and hadn’t even had to buy new pants.

And I hope it stays that way but I won’t beat myself up if it doesn’t. 30 brings with it changes that I hadn’t expected and so, I am learning to adapt. I guess we will just have to wait to see what next Winter brings.

Hopefully some cookies (and I guess some exercise to go along with them).

Cheers to you, tight pants or loose. Either way, I hope you’re happy.

 

 

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