Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Going Around in Circles

So yesterday I had to take sheep feed out to the farm. I arrived there, limp and tired, after a crazy day at work. But somehow, time at the farm is like a little tiny vacation. I have only to step out of my truck and hear the thin, nasal bleating of the goats, underlain and punctuated by the deeper counterpoint of the sheep, and the coils of the day start to loosen and fall away. Suddenly my spine straitens just a little and I draw a deeper breath, and the shuttered prospect of my world opens up a little, giving a larger vista; a little perspective.

S and R are on the deck, leaning back in lounge chairs, basking in the Alaskan sun. I am immediately mobbed by their farm dogs - two adult Aussies and a Border collie pup, who is completely charming in the way of Border collie pups. An addict of the breed myself, I am of course enchanted by this one, and I pause for a minute to cuddle and pet her, admiring the way her ears have gone from silly to ridiculous. They have not decided which way they want to go - up, down, tipped, folded, sideways - and trade off frequently at this stage. Nothing could be cuter or more engaging, except for the rest of the puppy. She's a lovely thing, leggy and coltish right now, with a long slender head and an alert eye which misses nothing.

R comes around to be sure I've noticed they are out on the deck, and mentions that S is in need of another Mike's Hard Pomegranate, and hopes I'll help her by keeping her company. Well, all righty then. That sounds just peachy. R has a meeting, but makes sure we're well-supplied before taking off.

I make myself comfortable in a deck chair, opening my drink and feeling my shoulders loosen and my heart slow just a little. The dogs - the Wildwood three, plus Pepper - are nosing around on the deck. Pepper is inclined to stare intently at the parrot (out on the deck in its cage for a bit of sun and a change of scenery), but before long she has located a moose bone under the deck and takes charge of it. S and R have been on a horse-packing trip (with S's oldest daughter, up from college); the tack, tents and other gear, recently scrubbed, are basking on the deck with us, drying in the sun. I ask how the trip was.

"Amazing," says S, and tells me this story.

They went to a place called Horse Pasture Pass - which, although up a little in elevation, is (unsurprisingly) like a big horse pasture at the top of the pass. They had been seeing caribou here and there - little clumps, twos and threes - but in the pass, all of a sudden there are more like three hundred. The caribou come running towards them; the riders hold their mounts, who are alert and slightly tense, but not alarmed. The caribou veer around the riders, then circle them, flowing around them like the ox-bow of a river. The riders can hear the soft muffled thump of their hooves on the springy tundra, see the liquid gleam of their eyes, hear the soft snorting breaths of their effort, their grunting calls. The entire herd swirls about them counterclockwise, looping them almost completely before veering off to the right and continuing on their way, intent on caribou business that somehow has included a little roundup of a handful of women mounted on horses.

After this rather astonishing event, the riders continue on. There is a storm now ringing the meadow, low above their heads, with thunder rolling. But there is no lighting overhead, so rather than taking cover, they ride. When it begins to rain, it is with a vengeance. In seconds they are soaked to the skin, their rain gear failing, no match for the torrential downpour. It is like having someone empty bucket after bucket over their heads. They return to camp, where the nearby stream is swollen and rough with runoff; but they judge that it is low enough and far enough away that they elect not to move camp. They crawl into their tents, stripping out of wet clothes, every stitch drenched and sodden.

After perhaps an hour's rest, with the rain abated, Susan hears her daughter, C, and a companion stirring out of their tents. Suddenly there is swearing and cries of alarm. Everyone bails out of their tents; the stream has broken loose of its banks and is flooding; their campsite is now an island. A milk crate full of beers, secured in the shallows of the river for cooling, has broken loose of its moorings and is drifting down stream; other gear is in peril. The women start to scramble; only a small rivulet, almost narrow enough to step across, divides them from drier ground on one side. They start pitching gear across this, yanking up stakes and casting the tents across like fishing nets, gathering jumbles of gear and rescuing it from the waters. The ground, of course, is muddy, but they set camp again as the water starts to recede a little. Meanwhile one of the women goes out and starts picking up fish. Because fish are just laying there, startled and flopping, brought ashore by the flood and stranded by its retreat.

Well, if the waters cast you fish, you should not ignore the bounty.

So that night they feast upon grayling and trout, handed to them by the storm. One of the company has a fascination with fire (an easy thing to be fascinated with). Not content to merely stare at and tend the campfire, she has put her boots near it to dry. I gather that this sometimes pretty much takes the form of putting her boots IN it to dry, and has resulted in the untimely demise of more than one set of foot gear. But fascination is like that, drawing one back over and over to the source, coaxing one to play (in this case literally) with fire. With the not unexpected result that there are soon burns to contend with.

S, an accomplished outdoorswoman (and holder of a medical degree), suggests brewing a tea of cinquefoil to soothe the burns. This is quickly done, as cinquefoil is readily to hand, growing wild nearby. The burns are quickly (and successfully) treated with the astringent tea - but what to do with the rest of it?

Well, that should be obvious, think the assembled riders: We should all bathe our feet in it.

So, while R laughs and shakes her head at this silliness, the rest of the crew bathes their feet - one foot (or sometimes only part of one foot) at a time, as the pan is quite small. I don't know if it helped, but hey: It's not going to do any harm, so it's probably worth a try. I'd've done it, if only to say that I had.

Back on the deck at Wildwood with a cold drink in my hand, I am thinking in circles - the circling caribou, the stormy crown like a halo overhead, the encompassing flood ringing around their camp -and my mind circles back to camping trips and hikes of days gone by for me: Times I've been caught out in storms, places I slept under the stars, people I laughed with until I cried, for no real reason that I can remember - because what has remained with me was not the reason for our laughter, but the joy of it. I am smiling at S's story, picturing it, feeling for a moment the spring of the turfy ground under my feet, the grit of riverbank silt on my skin, the cold trickle of rain over my scalp after it has penetrated the thickets of my hair and made it down to flesh. I am thinking of my fantasy horse (and of the fantasy money which would allow me to support it), and of going on such a ride next summer....

Well. A girl can dream, can't she?


Holly said...

not being one to want to give up a soft DRY bed and soap/water, I'm not a camper. However, the riding sounds delightful. The caribou quite the experience....nowhere else could you experience such a thrill as that!

Pat said...

Ahhh, my day is complete. I have read a story from you. Thanks!

Dragon43 said...

Very well written. AK weather is wonderful in it's changeability...

I was in the ARMY, you can have the wet camping..... LOL

Flo said...

As soon as I read "they elect not to move camp" my first thought was "this will not end well"- but it did! Granted, the gear was soaked and it sounds like the beer was lost, but no one was hurt. And there was some very, very easy fishing to be had.

I've camped in Southern California, and learned to pitch camp as high as possible. Not because there's anything so noticeable as a stream in the semi-arid areas (read: desert with shrubs), but because flash floods are a huge problem, and getting caught at the bottom of an arroyo could get you killed. I'm also learned to shake out my boots every morning and check my sleeping bag for snakes and scorpions before getting in. This paranoia has followed me to the middle of the Midwest, much to the amusement of my campmates.

Thank you for sharing another wonderful story. Makes me wish I'd been there. (And I hear you on the "tiny vacation" thing, some places are just restful.)

MaskedMan said...

Weather and camping - Mother nature always has to toss you a test, 'just because.' Heh!

An now, somewhere downstream, a random fisherman is going to find a crate of chilled beer...

AKDD said...

MM, I didn't think of that! [grinning].

I think wet camping is WAY more fun when you're out on horseback... or doing it for fun, instead of for work.

Flo, having grown up in CO, I have the same "flash flood" mentality. I was in high school when the Big Thompson flooded, killing over 100 people, IIRC. We were working on putting in a patio - sandstone flags - and my stepdad was all gung-ho to put in the concrete grout in the rain, because he felt it would decrease the likelihood of it cracking as it dried. We had the radio sitting on the back step under the eaves, and heard the reports as they started coming in. It was SO sad.

Colleen said...

Guess I don't have to describe our pack trip in my blog... you did it for me! It was such an amazing trip. 2 weeks went by too fast, I'm sorry I didn't get to see you while I was there. :(

AKDD said...

Colleen, I hope I came close to doing it justice. It DID sound like a completely amazing trip - I wish I'd been on it with you!

I'm sorry we didn't cross paths while you were up, too - I guess that just means you have to come back up again soon!