Monday, January 31, 2011

Adventures At Sheep Camp Part II: On the Eve Of The Battlement

Resuming our story: When last we saw our dauntless heroines, they were flying back from Battlement Mesa in a helicopter. At least one of them really had a good time in the air.

When we returned to earth, we watched the pilot lift his bird back up into the deep turquoise of the fathomless Colorado sky. Turning to more mundane tasks, we drove the rig back through the arid, dusty heat of the afternoon; there were a few more things to attend to that day. The sun was starting to slant across Sunnyside Plateau, the broad bench from which the Mesa arises. The dirt is sandy and red, and the sloping light burns everything a rich and brilliant red-orange. The beauty of this eases the transition from airborne to earthbound, and I feel myself settling peacefully back onto my foundations - but not completely, because the sky has taken root somewhere inside me. I do not know it then, but it will never completely let go. I'll love small-aircraft flying forever.

But that day, we finished up some errands that had to be done, in preparation for us to go to Rifle District in the morning. Maggie had some confabulation set up with one of her mentors in the DOW, so accordingly the next day I drove us to Rifle. I cooled my heels while Maggie took care of project business, and then we turned tail back to Plateau Creek.

The town of Plateau Creek has one main street upon which stand maybe 20 or so storefronts. There is one grocery store, a post office, two diners, a bar. The only pizza to be found in town is at the bar, and that night we opt to go in for a pie and a beer; for the next several days we'll be on the mountain, and our diet will be limited to more durable (but less enjoyable) camp fare.

Unsurprisingly, the Northern Geo crew have located the one and only bar in town, and have descended upon it like a plague of locusts. Also unsurprising is their delight at seeing Maggie and I turn up in the bar. There are, after all, at least a dozen men in the bar, and only two women - and that'd be us. That fact alone was enough to guarantee us a certain amount of courtliness and interest, but here I must mention that Maggie is absolutely beautiful. Black Irish, her hair is lush and glossy as sable and her eyes are the rich deep color of coffee beans. She has perfect white teeth, a beautiful profile, and actress-worthy looks. She smiles readily, is pleasant and upbeat, and is always willing to laugh at a joke. Even when she is not one of only two women in a roomful of men, they still cluster around her admiringly.

Accordingly, we have no sooner placed our pizza order and had the bartender draw us a couple of drafts than we are surrounded by lonesome NG crewmen. I am not the man-magnet that Maggie is -and I'm more introverted, to boot - so she takes this better in her stride than I do, chit-chatting and introducing us around. I'm no more than halfway through my beer when another round magically appears in front of us. Um. Okay, then. Thanks. Oh, and there's another round, fancy that.

By the time I'm on my second slice of pizza, I have three beers sitting in front of me, courtesy of the NG crew, who are all WAY better drinkers than I am - and very attentive lest Maggie and I perish of thirst. Hm. No demur seems effective; all the Northern Geo guys wave off my observation that I have more beer in front of me than I can manage to drink before next Friday. It's rather dear, really, their generosity, and I can't bring myself to step on their generous and attentive toes. Accordingly I get up every so often with my beer in hand, go up the the bartender for a quick chat, and allow him to discreetly pour it down the channel. Then I go back to the table, pick up the next mug for a sip, and repeat until done.

Before long our pack of admirers is either bored or getting bolder with the beer lubricating them. They invite me to play pool - at which I suck, by the way - and they look so hopeful and forlorn that I agree. They helpfully coach me - often two or three of them offering conflicting advice at the same time - and though I don't improve my billiards skills, I do rather enjoy their puppyishness.

Several of them try to recruit me to join their crew. I point out that I'm much smaller than any of them, and unlikely to be able to hump chain and cable up a mountain all day long.

"You look strong," one of them tells me, eyeing my deltoids.

"Thanks," I tell him, "but I'd bet money any one of you can hike me into the dirt in no time."

"We'd help you," says another hopefully. While I am reflecting that this might defeat the purpose of hiring me in the first place, another one pipes up.

"It's really good money," he says, in coaxing tones. I can't help it. I smile at them. They all smile back, brightening like a gang of 10-year-olds offered ice cream.

"I really can't," I tell them. "Maggie can't get back into the field without me. She can't drive the rig til the splint comes off."

They all look over at Maggie, who has graduated from her hot-pink cast into a flesh-colored splint - but who still has the seal-flipper effect going on. They look slightly crestfallen, but nod judiciously. This they understand. They don't believe that, even recently off the track, with my mini-linebacker shoulders, I am not half as strong as them; and they don't get it that I can't keep up with the slowest of them on the trail, especially hauling heavy lines uphill over my shoulders - but they understand helping a friend.

One of them - called Skip by his pals - wants to dance. Our Skip is a little tipsy - by which I mean fairly drunk - and is so lovelorn (no so much for me, but for any female companionship) that I can't refuse him. It would be like swatting a puppy. So he trots over and feeds the jukebox, and I try to swing dance with him. I say "try" because Skip's balance has gone the way of the buffalo (along about his 6th beer, I'd guess) and I'm having to help him keep his feet. Skip is the smallest of the crew, but he's wiry-tough, and surprisingly heavy when he steps back and his weight tugs at my grip. His arms may be leanly knotted with muscle, but they are limp as linguini, and after one particularly enthusiastic move Skip's fingers jerk right out of my grasp and down he goes. Oops.

His buddies gather around him and ask if he's okay, helping him to his feet. He went down like a plank and I'm pretty sure I heard his head hit the floor, but he assures us manfully that he's just fine. He wobbles over to take my hands again, but yields to one of his buddies at the next song, and seems content to sit with a beer and smile sleepily at me thereafter.

Meanwhile Maggie is deep in conversation with the crew boss. I glance over and see the topographical map spread out on the table in front of them, their heads bent close together over it. I wonder what she is up to, but I am still surrounded by NG crew, so there's no chance to go look.

It goes on like this, in a pleasantly exasperating sort of way, until I am ready to curl up under a table and sleep. Maggie folds up her topo map with a satisfied air. I remind her it's after 11:00 and we have to hit the mesa in the morning, and we bail out of the bar, our admirers calling goodnights as we make our escape.

"What were you up to with the crew boss?" I ask her.

"He said they could move our cubies for us," she says. "I marked where I want them to put them. That way we can hike out to water instead of carrying a whole day of it with us."

Hmm. Well, that's nice. Water is necessary, especially up on the arid mesa, but it's heavy. Being able to hike for an hour or two, refill water, hike out to the spotting point, and then reverse the process after sheep scoping, is a happy thought. The cubies are five-gallon bladders of water, enclosed in a heavy cardboard cube, and having them placed strategically in our main hiking paths is a dandy idea. I'm not sure how much of the crew chief's cooperation is based on general make-nice PR, and how much is due to the influence of Maggie's thick shiny hair and pert sun-kissed nose, but either way, it's a nice offer. And they do a nice job if it, too, those Northern Geo guys; they place the cubies exactly where marked, always under the shade of a tree and flagged on two sides to make finding them a snap. In the end we lose two of them: One was placed on the ridge where designated, but Maggie didn't notice that her X marked a spot on the far side of a deep, narrow ravine. The other fell prey to a thirsty bear. Based on the claw marks scored deep into the heavy cardboard sides, it appears that the bear tore off the screw-top lid and then simply grabbed the 5-gallon box and tilted it up to drink the contents. Still, the remaining cubies bailed us out of carrying many a quart along the way, and for that we were grateful.

Next up: Battlement Base Camp.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Adventures At Sheep Camp: Going To The Battlement

For unknown reasons I was thinking today about my stint in Battlement Mesa. I was going to write you all a story about bison, but I think I'm going to slip this in ahead of it . (Sorry, Rock Ridge! I'll get to it, I swear.)

Back before Vet School, I was in graduate school getting a master's degree in Wildlife Biology. One day I was sitting in my office, minding my own biz (okay, I admit it: I was doing the crossword in the campus rag.) In comes one of my fellow grad students (who we shall euphamistically call Maggie). She has been out in the field - in her case, Battlement Mesa, an arid, rocky mesa in Western Colorado, not far from the better-known Grand Mesa. But she's back visiting at the U because she can't do her fieldwork for the moment: She'd fallen off a cliff not so long ago, and her left arm is in a cast. We'd all heard she'd had an accident, but not the extent of it; I eye her cast in some bemusement. It's made so that her wrist is tilted laterally, and her left hand by consequence sticks out to the side like a seal flipper.

"Jeez, what'd you do?" I ask her.

She explains: when she fell, she shattered her radius (the larger of the two bones in the lower arm) and the pieces were too small to pin, wire or plate back together. The solution was to tilt her wrist to the side, putting tension on the soft tissues overlying the bone. This compressed the fragments enough to get them more or less lined up and close enough together that they could knit.

The down side of this ingenious arrangement is that Maggie can't drive her Forest Service rig: It's a one-ton four-wheel-drive pickup, for starters. You need both hands to manage the wheel, especially in rough terrain. If the cast angulation didn't prevent Maggie from being able to grasp the wheel, the fact that her entire plam is covered with hard, slick fiberglass would have done the trick. Moreover, her rig is a stick, and the 4-wheel is old-school: Two gear shifts, and you have to get out to lock the hubs. Locking the hubs would be the least of her problems; that, she could manage with her right hand. But you can't really steer a one-ton truck with one knee whilst simultaneously putting in the clutch with the other leg and taking your only good hand off the wheel to shift.

Hence Maggie's visit to the U: She's trolling for volunteers. Time is a-wasting, the summer is winding along, and nothing is getting done on her project while she's laid up.

Well. I have a hiatus in my own project, as it turns out. I have 5 weeks I can spare her. This could be fun. Or maybe not, but at least I'd be able to help her get back out into the field.

So, we cobbled together various arrangements (some things easily, others fraught with very tedious details, which I'll skip) and two weeks later I found myself living in the Forest Service bunkhouse in Plateau Creek, Colorado.*

Maggie's project was a desert bighorn study, jointly funded by the Forest Service and the Division of Wildlife. Accordingly I drove our rig hither and yon, being introduced around as Maggie's fill-in help. There were a few days of errands to run before we went into the field: re-check doctor appointments in Grnad Junction for Maggie, groceries to buy, field-camp equipment to assemble. As it turns out, Northern Geophysical was surveying in the area, and the company - eager to make nice with the locals and keep relations with the regional government agencies cordial - vonlunteered to fly one of their choppers up and drop our entire field camp at the designated base camp site.

I had mixed feelings about this; we'd been planning to haul our camp up on horseback, and one of the things Maggie'd been looking for in her volunteer was someone who could ride. I'm competent enough on horseback, I suppose, and I'd never had a chance to do horse-packing like that, so I'd been looking forward to it.

On the other hand, there was the small but significantly tempting detail that Northern Geo would need us to fly up with them in the chopper and scout the field site so they'd know where to drop our camp.

Flying. In a helicopter.

Oh, goodie. I've always wanted to go up in a chopper.

On the day of, I drive the rig to the designated take-off point, a grassy meadow outside of town. I am prepared to be all circumspection - it isn't my project, after all, so I am ready to sit meekly in the back of the chopper. I firmly bite my tongue and do not (though I dearly want to) ask to sit in front. But Glory Hallelujah, Maggie doesn't want to sit where she can look down between her feet through the plexiglass bubble and see the ground slipping away beneath her - nor where there is an open door to her right, with only her harness to keep her from falling out the door. Personally, I don't understand this: I myself am dying to do that very thing. But when Maggie makes a face and asks me if I'd mind sitting up front, I decline to look a gift horse in the mouth and tell her as graciously as possible that I'd love to.

I get to fly up front in the right seat! Yay!

We get in, strap down, don headsets. The pilot checks to make sure we're secure and can all hear each other. He fires it up and the blades of the rotor begin to turn, ponderously at first, then faster, driven by the throaty roar of the engine. The heavy whup of the blades rises in pace and pitch, their power translating down through the frame of the bird, and I am so excited I'm having a hard time holding still. I bite my lip on an ear-to-ear grin, trying not to look like a complete moron, but I can't help it: when the pilot lifts his bird into the air, a laugh escapes from low in my throat, gurgling up from a deep well of delight. I get a sidelong glance from the pilot and a half-smile, as if he's saying: Yeah, I get it.

I look down. My heels are on the metal frame of the chopper, my toes on the clear plexiglass bubble. The earth falls away, grasses flattened in the prop-wash, and then our nose pitches slightly down and we are skimming forward over the tops of the trees. I am enchanted.

We approach Battlement. The pilot asks if we want to do a quick scout for Bighorns before we locate our camp site. Yes, Maggie tells him - after all, if we can find animals now, we'll find them all the more easily when we are up on the Mesa. Obligingly, the pilot threads us up and down the canyons that crenellate Battlement's edges. I am beside myself with glee. This is the coolest thing ever. I am watching the cliffs skim by alongside us, looking for desert bighorns. The pilot, with better skills than I, sees them first: they're moving along the cliff to the right of the chopper, and he banks his bird to tilt Maggie's seat up and mine down, giving both of us a better view. I count seven, maybe eight, desert bighorn ewes, guessing at five or so lambs, all leaping lightly along the cliffs. They are running toward us, so they're gone in a flash, but it's no less a thrill for all that.

The pilot banks us back the other way, peeling away from the cliffs and carving a wide circle through the sky, buying us altitude before he swoops us up over the top of the mesa. This gives me an enjoyable roller-coaster thrill in the pit of my stomach and I laugh again, unable to help myself. The pilot doens't spare me a look, but from the corner of my eye I can see him smiling. Oh, well; I may be a dork, but at least I'm entertaining him.

Maggie points out our future base camp and the pilot makes a wide loop around it, scouting the slope and assessing landing sites. There's a decent amount of flat in the midst of the mild undulations of the mesa-top; our camp will be a hundred or so feet below the crest, down a relatively gentle slope.

Scouting complete, the pilot turns back toward town. Ah, well; I knew it couldn't last. Still, this is one of the coolest things I've ever gotten to do, and I lean forward to watch our shadow racing over the earth between my feet, trying not to waste a minute of it.

Next up: Installment two of this tale, as yet untitled.

*In the interests of privacy for various parties, this is a mythical name.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Bad Ideas

Well, I've been a little quiet lately. I'm laying low because I've been a wee bit indisposed.

It all started so innocently. I got this cold. A little tiny cold. The wimpiest cold ever. No big. But then, I made a mistake. A Very Bad Mistake.

See, I posted on FaceBook that I had the wimpiest cold ever. In effect, I laughed at it. I gave it a virtual raspberry. I might as well have waved my metaphorical private parts at its aunties (silly English ka-nnnigit... with apologies to Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) Ultimately, it boils down to this: I taunted the virus.

Never taunt the virus.

Thing is, if you taunt the virus, it goes, "Oh, yeah?" and then it calls in reinforcements in the form of a secondary bacterial bronchopneumonia. And having pneumonia of any form, let me tell you, is a Bad Idea.

It's not my first round with pneumonia. I had it when I was an intern. I worked every day for a month with it. This also: Bad Idea. However, I was in a seven-intern program and we'd already lost two: One had broken her leg whilst cowboy dancing (no one could say she wasn't enthusiastic) and the other had wrecked her motorcycle. Five interns can (with great difficulty) do seven interns' work. Four interns can't. I knew if I went down the whole house of cards was going down with me. I wasn't going to do that to my intern mates. So, I lay on my side at night, feeling the secretions rolling down my airways, and then I coughed and coughed until I cleared them out. Then I rolled to my other side and did it again. I started on antibiotics and I got up in the mornings and I went to work. I also developed an interesting drug eruption as a result of an allergy to the antibiotic, but that's another story. But I got through it, my injured intern mates recovered and returned to work (one of them in a wheelchair at first), and I gradually got better. The intern program returned to full strength (for a while, anyway, until one of the interns left to give birth slightly prematurely - some people will do ANYthing to get out of their intern presentation! - and another had to leave the program for personal reasons.)

However, the entire experience left an indelible impression on me. Coughing your brains out for a month will do that to you. Go figure.

Which is how I knew, four days after the wimpy cold had started, that I was heading into Big Trouble. One day I was fine - mild sore throat, no cough, a little stuffy, a little blah. The next day I started coughing. Still no big, not much coughing. Par for the course. The next day, like a fool, I posted the wimpy cold status on FB.

Day after that, coughing a little heavier. By that night, it was kicking my ass. But I was off the next day; I figured I'd sleep it off. Still no big. Except that by the evening of the following day I Could. Not. Breathe.

If I concentrated hard I could draw a full breath, but I was drawing it against resistance, and it took effort to exhale. This - slow, deep respirations with effort - is an obstructive pattern, which indicates airway narrowing. A rapid, shallow pattern would indicate restriction, such as would occur with air or fluid inside the chest, anything compressing the lung tissue. But I couldn't tolerate any compression of my chest - not leaning back against the pillow, not laying down - and I had to concentrate on every breath. I didn't need a stethoscope to hear the crackles and rales in my chest. I could hear them just fine without (and feel them even better).

Okey-dokey. Time for a pulse-ox, and I may be heading to the people hospital to admit myself.

I struggled into clothes and tottered down to my truck. It was cold and the wind was absolutely howling - gusts into the 70 mph range. I warmed my truck up for 10 minutes - it took that length of time to recover from the trip down there, anyway - and I drove to work, concentrating on driving, concentrating on fighting the heavy winds as they snatched at my truck and bounced it around, concentrating on breathing. I made it to the clinic, went inside and leaned on a table for a while til I could breathe again. I put the pulse oximeter on my finger. I waited for it to pick up my heart rate - 120, too high - and my oxygenation - 90, too low. On room air I should be 98 to 100%, and standing at rest my heart rate ought to be in the high 80 to low 90 range.

This means that my lungs are impaired, but not as much as my bronchioles. My oxygenation is down about ten percent, but that's better than my respiratory effort, which is up by a factor of two or three above normal. I've never had this much effort breathing - ever in life - and that's for just standing there, doing nothing. Still, 90 isn't good - but it isn't dying, either.

Okay then. No hospitalization. On the other hand, big Yes to getting some meds (and yes, I do have a people doctor, why do you ask?)

So I started on antibiotics. I'm a proponent or reserving the use of antibiotics for those situations that merit them, which means I never take them for a cold. Especially not for a wimpy cold. But if said wimp-cold calls in a nice bacterial backup - okay, then. AB's it is.

Two hours later I felt markedly improved. Pulse ox had climbed to 92 (okay, not great, but I was getting it without the extreme effort.) I went home. I laid down. I slept. A miracle has occurred, and I can do both now. Or maybe it's not so much a miracle as the glory of antibiotics, appropriately applied, and thank God I live in a time and place where these things are available.

Meanwhile I got my truck stuck at the bottom of my driveway. The screaming winds have blown away the sand on my drive and polished the ice to something that even my Yak Trax are slipping on. It was a struggle to make it up the hill in the howling winds and the dark, but fortunately for Christmas (thanks, Dad) I got a headlamp that I believe might be visible in Russia. This means I could see even the slightest patch of traction, so I managed it in a under ten minutes, and only had to stop for breath every twenty feet or so. Easy-peasy. Fortunately I'd taken one Border collie along for moral support (I wanted two, but couldn't manage both), and he kept running back to check on me, facing into the knife-blade of the wind to watch me with quizzical gravity, moving up the drive when I did, as if concerned I'd forgotten the way. Every time I stopped, he'd run back down to me, watch, wait, lead me again.

Getting inside the house was lovely.

I slept and coughed the next day. I drank water and ate antibiotics and felt better. The following day I took a sick day and did it again. I called Rock Ridge and asked them if they had any miracle solutions for my driveway. They did, they assured me, and if I needed anything - food, medications, help of any description - I was to call them for rescue.

Gotta love Alaskans.

The next day I had challenges to face. Challenge number one was getting out of bed. That managed, I faced the Big One: making it down the drive to my truck, preferably without falling and breaking anything important. I put on my Yak Trax and crept out onto the icy drive, into the face of the howling winds. In the main, there are trees to grab onto - well, saplings, at least - and maybe a tiny rim of traction right at the very edge of the drive. Most of it I managed to do completely upright. Part of it I did literally on my hands and knees, where it was too slick and steep for the Yak Trax to grip the ice. The bank beside the driveway is devoid of both snow and ice, but the dirt is frozen so hard that there is no traction on it; my boots just slip off. I solved this by toeing in hard to the bank, bracing my knees against the steep slope of it, and using my frozen hands to find meager hand-holds of equally-frozen knobs of dirt knurling the surface. I crab-walked down that part sideways on my knees, but soon the bank's slope levels out and there is real footing again. Ah, success: My truck is there, the door is open, the dog and I are inside. My hands ache with cold and I can't feel my fingers, but steps one and two are complete.

Challenge number next: starting the truck, which has not had its block heater plugged in in three days. It is three degrees at my house - and, most unusually when it's that cold, the wind is still screaming by at vicious speed. The wind-chill is brutal. This might be a problem. But no, the truck fires right up.

Okay, now all I have to do is ease it out of the driveway without sliding into the lake, and then do my solo day at work. Piece of cake. Well, maybe not a piece of cake, but at least manageable. After getting down the hill, the rest of the challenges combined seem reasonably undaunting. My staff hunts around and finds me cough drops. They help me wrestle the tough dogs. They volunteer to slap me helpfully on the back if I need help coughing. We treat everything that comes in the door successfully.

Time to go home. Parked in the teeth of the wind for almost eight hours, the truck is dreadfully cold and won't start. It floods, straining to kick the engine over. Crap. I regroup, press the gas pedal to the floor, coax, pray. She tries, fails. Tires again, fails. Then a little gift: She turns over for me now, gargling and choking, but fighting through it to roar into life. Bless you, my little Canyon. I love this truck. I know Rock Ridge would come rescue me if need be - and so would any number of others - but I want to go home, crawl under the down comforter surrounded by dogs, watch Phantom of the Opera again (love that score), sleep. And that's what I do, because Rock Ridge has made my driveway navigable again, and the truck climbs right up.

Today I am better, and continuing on. It'll be a bit before I'm back to normal - once things settle into my chest, they stay a while - but I'm on the mend. But this is why I haven't posted the Bison story I promised Jenny - or anything else, for that matter. I'll get to it, eventually. I promise.

Meanwhile, on the plus side, I'm up to 94% oxygenation (heart rate mercifully 89 now). As a handy bonus, I think that all the coughing must be an excellent abdominal exercise, since my stomach muscles are sore, sore, sore. (Somehow, however, I doubt that the Bronchopneumonia Ab Workout will catch on and make me a million dollars.) I can think, I can breathe, and while I still have a lot of coughing in my future, I am now on the up-slope.

Also, I've learned an important lesson: Never taunt the virus.