Suddenly, November.


Above: Self-portrait under the stars, on one of my last nights in Boise, July 2017.

The story so far…

It’s been a hectic four months since my last update. July flew by in a hurry as fire season started to gain some steam in the Oregon Cascades and I started the process to move from Boise to Corvallis. August and September remain a blur, frankly, as I was introduced to the area during one of the busiest fire seasons in memory for roughly half of my zone. October saw some slowdown, but between the slow cessation of fire activity, a few non-fire projects, and my bullheaded inability to say no to additional work, it was still busier than it probably should have been. And November… well, the jury is out on how this month will go.

So where to start for this months entry? Of the thousands of things that have happened to me since the last post, it’s likely that hundreds have been memorable, and dozens have been interesting enough to recount here, but I only have a few that are flitting around in my head as I write this.

I guess a logical place to start is with the move from Boise in late July. Although I was by my own admittance ready to leave, it was still a lot tougher than I thought it would be. I’d spent a lot of my time in Boise thinking of other places, but it still remains that I lived longer in the Treasure Valley than anywhere not in western Montana. I’d developed a kind of grudging familiarity with the area that was comforting on a lot of levels… I knew the weather patterns, my favorite stores, restaurants, routes around town, and had my favored escapes from town as well. I knew my office, and most of the people working in it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I felt fully at home where the sagebrush plains met the mountains, but losing the familiar hurt more than I thought it would.

I’ll also add what a lot of fire people already know: trying to move in the middle of fire season sucks. I won’t say much more on that topic, other than I’ve been “moved in” to my apartment in Corvallis for roughly three months now and I still don’t feel like I actually live here. The settling-in process has been slow and halting, to say the least.

Speaking of fire season, it was a doozy in my small part of the world. At one point I couldn’t keep track of the fires themselves, only the Incident Management Teams (IMTs) that were assigned. At the peak we had 5 or 6 IMTs spread out between the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, Mt. Hood NF, and the Willamette NF, with 6 helibases and around 20-25 aircraft assigned in the area at any given moment. Now, that’s not to say we had it any worse than other units by any means… my neighbors to the south here in OR, and my old stomping grounds in MT also had huge fire seasons that stretched everyone farther than they wanted. It was just one of those seasons for a lot of folks. Honestly, in a lot of ways we had it easier than many others… with the exception of the Eagle Creek fire in the Gorge, most of our fires were relatively deep in the backcountry, compared with some of the fires on the Lolo NF in MT, and the Umpqua and Rogue-Siskiyou NF to the south here in Oregon. While they all presented unique challenges, at least we weren’t evacuating entire towns, like I hear happened back home in Seeley Lake, MT on the Rice Ridge fire.

But even with our relatively good fortune, it still made for a long year. Like a lot of other fire folks, my season started in April and went into October, and as a result I’m just now catching up with the “normal” things in life. For the better part of two and a half months I didn’t have time to do anything but my job. No time for photography. No time for visiting family. No time for scenic hikes. No time for more than a minimal number of days off to stay somewhat sharp mentally and physically. Definitely no time for writing blogs either, which I admit I missed after a while… I’d have great ideas of things to write about, but then no time to jot them down. Now, this wasn’t like being on a hotshot crew or busy helitack crew by any means, where it can be physically and mentally demanding doing 14 and 2 digging in the dirt all season, but it was a different kind of busy that I had to learn to manage (still a lot of 14 and 2, just not as a boots on the ground fire guy). Lets just say I’m glad the fire season is over, and I’m looking forward to the rainy Corvallis winter… I think.


Above: Totality at the Siuslaw NF HQ on the OSU campus in Corvallis, August 2017.

Moving on… Oh yeah, there was also that eclipse thing which happened at the end of August. I was too swamped at work to try and do anything neat in photo terms, but I was lucky enough to be working in Corvallis that day, which happened to be in the path of totality, and those of us at the office all wandered out into the parking lot and watched the event. I won’t lie: we also spent a fair amount of time watching the other people watching the eclipse… which was pretty entertaining. I was so scattered that I barely managed to grab my Canon camera and two wide-angle lenses to bring with me that morning. I didn’t remember where my tripod was (just moved, remember?), so I felt pretty good about just getting a few decent snapshots… nothing I’m proud of, but at least I was there, right? I wasn’t particularly impressed with the hype (didn’t see birds roosting, or stop singing, or see any stars, for example), but I was struck by how the character of the light changed dramatically during the event… the shift toward a white light rather than yellow “daylight” during totality is something that I’ll remember, for whatever reason. That, and how as it got dimmer it messed with my head a bit, as it was the same kind of thing you’d expect from increasing cloud cover, only it was clear as a bell overhead.

So that was my life in August and September… a blur of learning to fly by jumping off the edge, so to speak. It was hectic, but I managed to figure it out without too many belly flops into the pool of failure. I’d call it a success, in a lot of ways.


Above: Mt. St. Helens and Spirit Lake, with Mt. Hood way off in the distance, viewed from Coldwater Peak, October 2017.

October, and the real start of fall, got kicked off with a continued buzz of activity as things wound down, and I was able to sneak in a few “fun” projects where I got some field time, and even a few photo opportunities here and there. I had a busy week at the start of the month with few helicopter projects at Mt. St. Helens, which provided a much-needed dose of field work. It was my first time to visit the site, and I have to say the nerdy part of me was fascinated by the geology and ecology of the area.


Above: Early morning drop at the test grid, Fox Field, Lancaster, CA.

The month was finished out with a last shot of travel and work with the T&D folks on a project in SoCal. I’d left my previous T&D crew in the middle of fire season, and really didn’t have much of a chance to close out with them since everyone was out and busy when I moved. In that regard it was good to see a few friendly faces in a mostly relaxed setting after the year we’d all had. It was a fair amount of hard work, especially for a guy who really hadn’t done much PT or field work since mid-July, but it was pretty rewarding in its own way. And despite just taking snapshots with my lower-quality travel camera (since it was a work assignment after all), I did get one shot that I really liked, which in a goofy way made me very happy.

So there you have it, a glimpse into my life during the last four months. Pretty darn busy, with a lot of changes, some challenges, and a lot of overtime worked. I’m definitely looking forward to getting settled into the new setting, and seeing what the next few years bring. I know I didn’t expect what happened this year, so I can only speculate at what craziness lies ahead at this point in the game. I’m glad to report that I’m in a good job with good coworkers, and in a location that seems like it’s pretty good as well, so I’m as optimistic as I ever am about what’s to come.

With that massive and rambling post, I’ll call it a night.

Until next time…

About Justin Vernon

I'm an amateur photographer, wanna-be writer, tech aficionado, and a classic introvert who values quiet time as much as I do the mountains and people of the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies.
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