Photo Essay: Away on Business, But Not Without Pleasure

First posted in May, 2005

May 27, 2005
Sheep Camp RS

Amazing mist on the river this morning, lulled to sleep last night by rain on the tent. It has been an excellent but full week. Not really quite so full that I couldn't keep a journal, but that seems to be what's happened. We arrived by helicopter seven days ago. Last Friday was a day of sling loading gear and supplies along various segments of the Chilkoot trail. Though it was not my first time working with helicopters, it was my first time unhooking incoming sling loads beneath a hovering ship. Lots of safety issues to keep in mind, but it wasn't as difficult as I had anticipated it would be - though I suspect that is due, at least in part, to the amazing level of skill with which our pilot was able to place the loads.

A quick sketch of the view
from the ranger station

The Sheep Camp ranger station is in a lovely, flat spot. It's incredible to think that a century ago, on the opposite side of the river from where I sit now, was a community, albeit transient, of 5,000 to 8,000 people. This past week I've hiked to the Scales twice - a somewhat daunting experience, particularly since I'm not accustomed to snow travel - and though I didn't even ascend the Golden Stairs to the summit (yet), I gained an appreciation for what the gold rushers endured; an appreciation in theory only, despite hiking there and seeing the area first-hand, because I didn't climb the Stairs, and even if we'd have had time to do so, I wouldn't have been nearly so heavily burdened with gear. The average person seeking gold in the Klondike who crossed over the Chilkoot Trail would have carried forty to fifty pounds in an uncomfortable wooden box strapped direct to their back, and would have made forty to fifty trips over the summit - all part of a requirement imposed by the Canadian government that anyone entering the remote Yukon in search of gold had to have provisions to last one year. I carried food for a couple of days, a warm change of clothes, a first aid kit, trekking poles, snow shoes, an ice axe, and an aluminum snow shovel, as well as a few smaller items - a day's worth of gear, light weight and ergonomically packaged - hardly comparable to what would have been carried across in 1898.

Friday was spent unloading the sling loads, organizing food and gear.

Saturday was spent clearing ground.

Saturday was spent clearing ground in the Sheep Camp campground, one half mile south of the ranger station. The next day, the trail crew from our maintenance division would begin construction on the installation of some new composting privies, for which the ranger division agreed to clear the land and assist in moving the actual outhouses.

I suppose I won't go into much detail, but I must admit I'm curious to see how these new privies work - the toilets themselves are on elevated platform above the ground, and the waste is actually on the surface, surrounded by dark screen. After each use, you add a handful of wood chips. In theory, the warmer temperatures we have in summer, combined with the available oxygen flowing through the screens, allows for slow composting and cuts down on odors. After a couple of years we'll fly the waste out. These sorts of privies have evidently received a great deal of positive feedback on the Appalachian Trail back east. We shall see.

Jeremy demonstrates the proper technique for using a wheel barrow.
Actually, in all fairness, he's one of the hardest workers I've seen.

On Sunday, Tim, Jeremy, and I ventured up toward the Scales in the hope of locating our search and rescue supplies and the blaze orange poles we use to mark the trail when there's snow. We'd brought a GPS to find the SAR cache, which would most likely still be buried beneath the snow, but as chance (and a very warm spring) would have it, a vertical pole next to the cache was just barely visible above the snow, and Tim spotted it.

Tim begins digging out the SAR cache.

It turned out to be pretty easy to uncover, buried under perhaps two or three feet of snow. The poles, however, proved more difficult. We looked at the base of the SAR box, but they weren't there. On a (not entirely wild) whim, we checked at the base of a nearby boulder, and after reaching the ground (about five and a half feet below) we found the poles.

Digging snow from a trench level with my head.

We were able to expose the top of the stack of poles, but they were pretty caked in ice. Because they break pretty easily when bent - particularly if they're cold - we decided to let them thaw out in the sun. It was getting late in the day, and we could do no more, so we returned to the ranger station. I consequently didn't make the summit that day, but I'll be back later in the summer, so I'm not too disappointed. It's not as if I didn't get a great view from where we were, after all.

Additionally, I'd already started to stretch my comfort levels a bit. The summit involves walking up a sixty degree slope in the snow, something I've never done before. I would have done it had it been necessary, but as it was I'd already been trying to get a grasp on where I could and could not walk on the rapidly melting snow - and not always a successful grasp.

As we were making our way back, crossing a snow bridge over a creek, I noticed where the people in front of me had fallen through. I avoided where they'd been, went for what looked to be more solid snow, and was successful in making it closer to the edge of the creek than they had. On the very last step before I'd have a short enough distance to jump toward the bank, however, I went through the surface. It wasn't the first time I'd fallen through the snow, but it was the first time I'd done so over (and into) a creek. Fortunately I was at the very edge, it was shallow, I was wearing the right clothes for it, I only went in as far as my thigh, and I was able to pull myself back out, but it was a rather exciting little experience and I unfortunately took a pretty hard blow to my left leg, which was already bruised from two other injuries. I lost a bit of the strength in that leg for a couple of days because the muscle sort of seized up, but it makes for a good photograph and was fine after a couple of days of rest and ibuprofen.

Sexy contusions, eh?

That evening, Kip made it into camp. The next couple of days were fortunately spent near the ranger station, which gave my leg a chance to recover.

On Monday morning I prepared my portion of the training I was going to provide later in the week once the trail staff from Parks Canada arrived. Because the Chilkoot trail is an international trail, we train each spring/summer with Parks Canada in rough terrain rescue, and this year is our year to host the training.

We spent the afternoon doing a trial run through our presentations. I gave a refresher on collecting basic vital signs and conducting medical assessments on patients with medical conditions and/or traumatic injuries, Jeremy covered all varieties of splinting and treating for shock in a backcountry setting, Kip dealt with airway management and administering oxygen, and Tim covered spine immobilization and packaging patients for transport.

One thing we did not cover was snake bites. This is not really all that surprising, since it's too cold during the winter for there to be any reptiles in the area (though there are adorable little toads). However, upon visiting the outhouse, I found this:

As silly as it would appear, you really do see these kits sold back home in Tennessee where there are a few different sorts of venomous snakes slithering through the woods. But I didn't expect to see such a kit on the Chilkoot.

Then it became clear. The outhouse, it would seem, has an occupant. He moves around every time you visit the loo. I was able to capture him on film one evening, as he hung from a branch on the trail leading to the toilet. He nearly bit me on the forehead...

One night he went missing from the outhouse entirely. I was rather worried about him. Thankfully he turned up in one of the Parks Canada staff's sleeping bags, and was later rereleased into his natural habitat by the privy. Today he again slithers free near the Sheep Camp ranger station toilet, as he has, evidently, for many, many years.

On Tuesday we cleaned up the campground, installed some new equipment, and I made signs to explain the funky new composting toilets. We put up an extra tent or two to accommodate the wardens who were hiking in from the summit, and then Kip and Jeremy taught me how to tie various useful knots for use in hauling patients up steep inclines while we waited for our guests to arrive.

By mid-evening everyone was at Sheep Camp, and we had a wonderful spaghetti feast with fantastic garlic bread. I'll have to make certain that I scale back on how I've been eating once I return to the front country, but for now I (hope) think that I'm expending enough energy to merit such portions of food.

While supper was cooking, someone spotted a porcupine.
A very blurry porcupine, unfortunately. I include this photo
only in an attempt to substantiate that the porcupines
around here seem to be unnaturally large. And cute.
Though admittedly it's difficult to tell from this photo.

Wednesday was spent demonstrating the aforementioned protocols for a variety of emergency medical skills, and in the afternoon I was packaged up into a litter so that everyone could get a bit of practice.

This is actually from the second time I was treated for a potential
spinal injury. In this scenario, which actually took place on Friday, I had
foolishly climbed onto the roof of an old cabin to get a better look at the
summit, but I fell off and broke my femur. They took very good care of me.
I appear to be quite realistically pale and shocky in this photo, too.

And here we are carrying someone (I have no idea who)
over uneven ground in a litter.

By Thursday morning I was back to doing my morning yoga on the helipad near the ranger station, my quadricep having thankfully decided it was okay to support my full weight and, to some extent, stretch again.

I couldn't resist documenting this great spot for doing yoga, though.
The stream is incredibly soothing. The ranger station is in the distance.
Many thanks to Warden Diane for taking the photographs.

On Thursday morning we headed back toward the Scales as a group of nine. As we encountered snow, we took a nice long break to discuss avalanche safety and how to recover (hopefully still breathing) individuals from the snow. Each of us was wearing a Piep, a transceiver that allows you to find - or be found - in the event of an avalanche, and we found a nice snow field where, for the next hour or so, we practiced hiding the transceivers from other people and then making them find them and dig them back up. After lunch on Long Hill, we moved closer to the Scales and did a more realistic scenario of three skiers caught in an avalanche, where two were wearing Pieps and a third was not. We found the third "person" (a buried backpack) by following clues and using probes.

We made our way to the Scales proper and reviewed with the Parks Canada staff what was located in the search and rescue cache should they have an emergency near the summit and need to use anything. We then found a nice steep slope and learned how to use ice axes to self-arrest if we fell and started tumbling downhill. It was fun, but it was starting to rain and I didn't want to get any colder than I needed to, so I only "fell" a couple of times.

The skies were not as blue as on my previous visit.

Jeremy is incredibly fast on the trail. I'm wondering if I were to take up pipe smoking, as he has, if it would make me move faster. Probably not. I would probably need to grow legs about a foot longer than I have at present. At any rate, he was, predictably, the first one to rush back to the ranger station. Convenient, since it was his turn to make supper. And so I purposely dawdled slowly down the hill with a couple of the Parks Canada folks, learning about local flora and discussing the best sea kayaking spots in southeast Alaska. We arrived about five minutes before supper was on the table - perfect timing.

After supper, I went to the trouble of taking a shower. My first in a week. This involved heating a kettle of water, pouring it into a solar shower (there wasn't enough sun to heat it), and adding a kettle and a half of cold water from the creek to even things out. I had just enough to rinse my hair, much to the relief of my scalp, which had been trapped under a hat all week.

There was a bit of live music every evening, as pictured above (that's a dandelion in Kip's mouth, by the way). And games. Cribbage, rummy, Scrabble. We also had a mini disc player that's incredibly economical on batteries - it almost felt as if we weren't in the backcountry. Very pleasant evenings indeed.

Friday morning was interesting. Some Australian girls had been camping in the nearby campground, and had, the previous morning, seen a bear. Then, Thursday evening, there'd been a bear in camp. And so Friday morning, while we were seated in the ranger station reviewing run sheets from rescues that had happened over the years, we received a report of the bear having bitten someone in the campground. Unsure of whether or not this was another scenario, given all the recent bear sightings and the immense amount of bear sign we'd seen when hiking to the Scales the day before, we began planning our response to the injured hiker at the campground. I for some reason volunteered to be the incident commander. As it turned out, it was indeed a scenario (one of the bear sightings had actually been a lie, told by the rather excellent and willing actresses after a request from my boss), but it had started out real enough, and I did a fairly reasonable job of handling the situation, though I did indeed learn a few things and would do a better job if I had it to do over again. It was a great scenario, though - with people from our trail center and the Skagway bear management team ten miles away working on the incident with us by radio.

After lunch, it was decided that I had earned a break. And so instead of having to manage any more emergencies, I became the emergency and pretended, as mentioned previously, to fall off of a roof. I tried to do my best to stay unconscious, but people kept making silly jokes and saying things like, "We've told Sam about your stupid fall and he says he loves you anyway," so it was hard not to smile.

Later in the afternoon we had another A-Star land at the helipad, and the pilot discussed with us everything he wants to see when he comes in to medevac a patient off the mountain. We again reviewed helicopter safety. Three members of our party left on that flight, but I stuck around to hike out on foot so that I could see more of the trail.

The thirteen and a half miles back home were gorgeous. My feet are out of shape, though. I think they spent all day yesterday working on growing another layer or two of skin. I didn't get any blisters... just... tender.

I retrieved Mlle de la Grenouille from her frogsitters yesterday. They took very good care of her while I was gone, and someone went so far as to put a cute little note on her tank that reads:

Je m'appelle Gren.
Je ne mange pas beaucoup.
S'il vous plaît, ne frappez pas sur ma maison!
And they did take very good care of her. As everyone always does when I leave her with frogsitters. But despite leaving a strict eating plan and a little calendar to check off each time she was fed, she got bigger while I was gone.

Look at that insanely large belly! She's, um, sort of back on a diet now. Except today was a Do Not Feed Gren Day, and she figured it out, and so she decided to shed and then eat her skin again. Which is far more than her normal amount of food. Silly little frog.