Tag Archives: Forest Service

How to Stay Safe and Healthy in the Forest

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  Let’s face it: a lot of us boondockers are city kids who’ve found ourselves spending a lot of time in the woods now that we’re living in our vans (or motorhomes or truck campers or cars or whatever). The forest can be a worrisome place for folks who didn’t camp much during our formative years. While I don’t sit around worrying about treachery at every turn, I do believe in taking precautions to keep myself and my belongings safe. Sometimes it’s easy to let our guard down when we’re surrounded by the beauty of nature, but vigilance is important, especially for folks out on their own.

Whether you’re camping in a tent or a motorhome or something in-between, you want to stay safe and healthy during your time in the forest. These tips can help you if you’re spending just a weekend out in the trees or moving from forest to forest while living nomadically.

#1 Don’t leave your belongings lying around. You may be honest, but your neighbors may not be. Whether you’re in a campground or boondocking in the wilderness, it’s a good idea to put valuables away when you leave your camp. If you’d be sad if an item were stolen or if you can’t afford to replace it, lock it up before you go.

If I’m camping somewhere for more than one night, I’ll often set up a tent to use as my storage shed. If I leave camp, I can easily stow my stove, propane tank, and tables in the tent. It’s quicker than packing everything into the van, and while it won’t stop a determined thief, it will slow down someone who can’t resist easy pickings.

#2 Don’t open your door to strangers. Just because you’re out of the city doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be cautious about who you let into your living space. If a stranger knocks, talk through a window. While I believe most people in the world are good at heart, don’t let a bad apple into your rig by mistake.

#3 Make sure your campfire is dead out when you don’t want to supervise it anymore. Going on a hike? The fire needs to be dead out. Going to bed? The fire needs to be dead out.

If you set the forest on fire, your safety is at stake too. If you’re away from your campsite or asleep when your campfire starts a wildfire, your property and life will be in danger.

The Forest Service gives these tips for making sure your campfire is completely out:

  • First, drown the campfire with water!
  • Next, mix the ashes and embers with soil.
  • Stir the embers after they are covered with water and make sure that everything is wet.
  • Feel the coals, embers, and any partially-burned wood with your hands. Everything (including the rock fire ring) should be cool to the touch. Feel under the rocks to make sure [there are] no embers underneath.
  • When you think you are done, take an extra minute and add more water.
  • Finally, check the entire campsite for possible sparks or embers, because it only takes one to start a forest fire.
  • Remember…if it is too hot to touch, it is too hot to leave.

#4 Keep your pet leashed and under your control or in your rig. If coyotes are in the area, small dogs and cats are at risk of being snatched. If you’re in bear country, even a large dog is no match for an adult Ursus americanus (black bear), much less an Ursus arctos (grizzly bear). Dogs antagonize bears and bears attack dogs. Protect your dog by not letting it run loose.

#5 Speaking of bears, don’t attract them with food and garbage left around your campsite. Keep a clean camp. Food and garbage lying around can attract not just bears, but other critters like flies, rodents, raccoons, and ravens. Of course, you don’t want to tangle with bears, but even smaller animals can create a huge mess by dragging food and garbage all over your campsite. Flies carry disease, and no one wants to get sick while they’re supposed to be enjoying trees and birdsong.

If you’re in a campground, put trash in garbage cans or dumpsters right away. Be sure you close garbage containers securely. If you’re boondocking in a place with no trash containers, tie garbage bags and stow them securely in your rig until you can pack out what you’ve packed in.

If bears are a problem where you’re camping, store all food and trash in bear boxes if provided or use your own bear canister.

#6 Beware of falling branches. It’s nice to park in a shady spot when the summer sun is beating down, but a falling branch can wreak havoc on your rig or tent. Look up before you pick your spot and notice any obviously dangerous tree limbs. Even if no limbs seem to be in danger of falling, remember that a high wind can send branches crashing to the ground with no warning.

A Forest Service website gives tips to keep you and your belongings safe from falling branches. Read all about it before you head off into the woods.

#7 Don’t pick up critters. The forest where I work seasonally posts warnings about plague and hanta virus. Picking up a sick animal greatly increases one’s chance of infection. In most wild places, wild animals won’t let humans get anywhere near them. If a cute little critter lets you pick it up, it’s probably not healthy. Don’t risk your well-being by picking up a creature that might be infectious.

#8 Watch out for snakes. While most snakes aren’t poisonous, you still don’t want to be bitten by one. Even a nonpoisonous snake bite may require medical attention. When a friend of mine  was bitten by a rattler in his own driveway, he ended up spending a couple of nights in the hospital. I certainly don’t have the time or money for anything like that.

For a comprehensive guide to keeping your space free of snakes, see the great article “How to Keep Snakes Away from Your Campsite” on the TakeOutdoors website.

#9 Wash your hands. E. coli doesn’t take a vacation just because you’ve left civilization. If, like me, you don’t have running water in your rig, you can set up a handwashing station in your camp. I use a seven gallon water jug with a spigot so I can control the flow of water and conserve the precious resource. At a bare minimum, wash up after performing elimination functions and before handling food.

#10 Know what creepy crawlies and flying critters you need to protect against. In certain areas, bug bites can be more than a temporary annoyance. Do the local mosquitoes carry the West Nile Virus? Are you at risk from getting Lyme disease from the ticks where you’re camping? Do you need to worry about brown recluse or black widow spiders? If the pests where you’re camping are poisonous or carry disease, you’re going to have to be extra vigilant about protecting yourself.

Ticks are creepy whether or not they carry Lyme disease.  If you find an attached tick during a full-body inspection, you’ll want to remove it immediately. Go to the Centers for Disease Control website to learn the steps for removing a tick. You may want to print out the steps to include in your first aid kit.

The Mobile RVing website has a good article on “How to Control Mosquitoes at Your Campsite.”

The Pronto Pest Management offers “10 Tips to Protect Yourself from Ticks While Camping.”

The USA Today website has an article with tips on “How to Keep Spiders from Campsites.”

There’s no way to imagine or prepare for every single danger one might encounter in the woods. In life we run into situations that could lead to harm, whether we’re in the city or the wilderness. I hope these tips help you plan for your health and safety when you leave the concrete and venture out into nature.

Remember, Blaize Sun can’t prepare you or protect you from every danger you might encounter in the forest. You are responsible for our own self. Research the problems you might encounter in the area you plan to camp in before you get there. Call the local BLM field office or Forest Service ranger station responsible for the place you want to camp and ask about hazards in the area. Think before you act. If something you’re about to do seems potentially dangerous, don’t do it!

I took the photos in this post.

People Want to Walk That Trail

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As I established earlier, when my work season started, the trail was closed. Forest Service employees were back there removing hazard trees, and they didn’t want civilians wandering near falling trees and chainsaws. That’s why the Forest Service threatened people caught on the trail with a $5,000 fine and up to six months in prison. But some tourists didn’t want to take no trail for an answer.

My boss told me my job is one of advising and not enforcement. Fair enough. I don’t want to be some kind of enforcer anyway. But I was not shy about advising people of the possible fine and prison sentence.

My first weekend at the campground near the trail was the one before Memorial Day. Many people, upon  seeing the gate to the parking lot closed, turned into the next driveway with an open gate. That driveway belongs to the campground where I was the temporary host. My weekend (mostly on Saturday, but some on Sunday too) consisted of me repeating the following information: The trail is closed…Hazard trees…Forest Service is serious…Fine…Prison. I invited people to park in the campground and have a look at the giant sequoias (probably at least a dozen) growing in it. I told people about a scenic overlook ten miles down the road and another sequoia grove twenty miles down the road. I was polite. I was helpful. In other words, I was a camp host super hero.

Most visitors were disappointed, but understanding. Several carloads of folks did spend time in the campground. Several picnic lunches were eaten.

I think talking to someone ostensibly in authority, made people feel accountable. I guess it’s difficult for someone to say s/he didn’t see the sign when a real live person said out loud the trail is closed.

Some people managed to slip in when I was at the back of the campground cleaning restrooms. As I walked to the front of the campground, I saw a whole extended family exiting the trail. There were even more people back there, but they slipped into the trees when I hollered over, Hey! Didn’t y’all see the trail is closed?

They told me they didn’t know, as they crossed the yellow caution tape stretched across the exit. They siad there wasn’t a sign at the other entrance. (I’m 98% sure they were lying.) Well, if those other people are in your group, you might want to tell them about the possible $5,000 fine and six months prison sentence, I said as they hustled to wherever they’d left their vehicle. I’m going to tell them right now, one woman said. I didn’t ask how she planned to do that while the others were hiding in the woods.

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Trees felled by the forest service.

Late in the afternoon, I saw some young folks hesitating on the legal side of the barricade. I saw them read the flyer that spelled out $5,000 and prison. I think they were just about to cross over when I called out, Excuse me. The trail is closed. One guy said he identified hazard trees for a living, implying it would be ok for him (and his friends) to go on the trail because he knew what dangers to look for. I told them I was simply advising them of the situation. They told me they were from the area, so I said they should come back later in the summer when the trail reopened. They were relieved to hear the trail would be reopened. They thought the trail had been closed for good. I assured them they would be able to visit the trees later in the summer, and if they weren’t happy when they left, they at least didn’t seem pissed off.

Early Wednesday morning, as I walked up to check the front restrooms, I saw a huge, older motor home pull into the campground’s driveway. The motor home was towing a big trailer, upon which was painted a lot of words. I couldn’t read the words because of the angle of the trailer, but the cross painted on the motor home and my previous experience led me to suspect those words were biblical scripture.

As I approached the motor home, the driver left his seat and exited the motor home through the side door. He was a clean-cut, with short hair, a totally normal looking middle-age guy. I asked him if he were looking for a camping spot. Although I didn’t know if any of the sites could accommodate such a big motor home and trailer, I figured if he wanted to camp, I’d let him look for a spot that might work.

He said he didn’t want to camp, he just wanted to walk on the trail.

I didn’t get much more than closed and hazard trees out of my mouth before he said, They can’t do that! He seemed to think because the trail is on public land, it can never be closed to the public. I didn’t want to argue with the guy, but I’m pretty sure public land can be closed to the public when there’s a safety issue.

I just gave him what had become my standard line of Well, the Forest Service is pretty serious about people staying off the trail because there’s a possible $5,000 fine or six months in prison for anyone caught out there.

They can’t do that either! the man exclaimed. My grandfather fought in a war!

My wackadoodle sensors went off. Trotting out a veteran in the family two generations in the past or equating the Forest Service cutting down hazard trees with Nazis (which I think is where he was heading) did not seem like valid arguments to me. Even if he had made a valid argument , I wouldn’t have told him he could go out there. So I just said, Sir, I’m only advising you of the situation. If you want to park your motor home, the best place to try will be in the overflow lot down the road.

I don’t know which part of what I said turned the tide, but he smiled and thanked me, got back in his motor home and drove away. Disaster averted.

My last encounter with someone who really wanted to walk the trail happened a few hours before the trail reopened. Of course, I didn’t know the trail would reopen that afternoon, just in time for Memorial Day weekend.

A crew of about a dozen Forest Service guys were out on the trail, their chainsaws buzzing, when the white car pulled into the campground. I walked up, said Good morning, asked if they were looking for a campsite.

The driver was a woman in her early 50s. In the passenger seat sprawled a girl about eight years old.

The driver said she wasn’t looking for a campsite, that she wanted to park so they could walk the trail.

I told her the trail was closed, had maybe said hazard trees when someone in the backseat poked her head up from behind the driver’s seat. She was wearing big sunglasses and a big, floppy, fashionable hat.

Do you work for the Forest Service? she asked me.

No, I said, but before I could explain private company and concession from the Forest Service, she  said, Yeah, well, we’re going to go on the trail anyway. She spoke in the most spoiled rich girl tone of voice I have ever encountered.

I said, Well, Forest Service guys are out there working right now, and if they see you on the trail, they might opt to give you a $5,000 fine or six months in prison.

Ms. Prissy Pants deflated. I could practically hear the waa wa wa waaaaa of a losing contestant on a 1970s game show.

I suggested another trail they could go to and see giant sequoias, but Ms. Prissy Pants said they would probably go to a different grove, which she called by name to make sure I knew she was an insider.

I said, Great! Have a nice day!

The driver asked if the campground restrooms were open, and I said they were. I walked away as she was parking, I didn’t want to have any more interaction with Ms. Prissy Pants or the people stuck with her on a road trip.

I took the photos in this post.

 

 

The Trail Is Closed

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I made it to California.

I made it to the general vicinity of my summer workplace

I made it through two days of boring (and dare I say, mostly useless) training.

And then I made it up the mountain.

I’m not yet stationed at my campground. I’m currently the temporary camp host at the campground next door to the parking lot for the trail. I’ll be there until the first of June, when the real camp hosts for that campground arrive (in a bus painted Ohio State colors, apparently).

When I arrived at the campground, the gate was still closed. No signs were hung on the signboards. The women’s restroom up front was locked, and none of my keys opened it. The men’s restroom was unlocked, but filthy. I had no cleaning supplies.  I had no toilet paper to stock the restrooms. I had no trash bags, and if I’d had any, I had no trashcans to put them in. On top of all of that, the crew who’d been in the campground cutting hazard trees had left tree debris everywhere. The campground looked like a war zone (or at least what I imagine a war zone in a forest would look like). I was not a happy campground host.

To make matters worse, the trail across the street was closed too. Forest Service employees were out there, cutting hazard trees. According to http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5332560.pdf ,

Tree hazards include dead or dying trees, dead parts of live trees, or unstable live trees (due to structural defects or other factors) that are within striking distance of people or property (a target). Hazard trees have the potential to cause property damage, personal injury or fatality in the event of a failure.

I can’t vouch for what happens when a tree hits the ground and no one is there to listen (but I do have two words for you, baby: sound waves). When I was there to hear, falling trees were preceded by a huge cracking sound, followed by a reverberating thud. Such noise inspires awe, at least in me, but also in every other lay person who’s been standing near me when it’s happened.

So because the trail was full of hazard trees and because Forest Service folks were in there cutting the hazard trees, the trail was closed.

I didn’t talk to too many people about the trail on Thursday. The campground’s closed gate and the sign proclaiming Sorry, We’re Closed discouraged most people from even pulling their cars into the driveway. Some folks talked to the Forest Service employee stationed at the trail’s entrance. After the Forest Service guys went home (wherever home is to those guys), some folks parked on the road side of the campground’s gate to walk across the highway and read the sign warning of a possible $5,000 fine and six months in prison for anyone caught on the trail.

I had resigned myself to fact that the campground would not be opened that day, when fairly late in the afternoon I saw two men and their motorcycles outside the gate. I walked over to talk to them, and one of the men said plaintively, Are you really closed? He seemed tired and frustrated.

I told him we were closed. I suggested some other campgrounds down the road, but he said they’d already checked and found those campgrounds closed too. I explained the campground offered no toilet paper and no trash cans. I said I hadn’t been able to clean the restrooms. The man said he had his own toilet paper, could pack out his trash, and wouldn’t be offended by the state of the restrooms, as he had worked construction and was accustomed to portable toilets. After we talked awhile and I realized they were good guys, I decided What the hell, opened the gate and told them they could stay. They ended up staying three nights. Both of them were super nice guys, and I had several pleasant conversations with both of them. It was awesome to start the season (before the season had officially started) with nice campers.

I was able to officially open the campground on Saturday morning. People started coming through the gate before 11am. I did get one set of campers (a couple and their two dogs, none of whom gave me any trouble), but most of the people coming through the gate had come for the trail. After scrubbing the two front restrooms, I posted myself near the gate with a book. As car after car pulled in, I answered the questions of the visitors.

Yes, the trail is closed.

It’s closed because their are many hazard trees on the trail. The Forest Service is in the process of cutting down the hazard trees. It’s dangerous on the trail.

The drought killed the trees. Well, the drought and the bark beetle and some kind of mold. But mostly the drought. Because of the drought, the trees’ defenses were down and they couldn’t fight off the bark beetle and the mold.

Yes, the campground is open.

Yes, the restrooms are open. These up front are wet because I just cleaned them, but you are welcome to use the ones at the back of the campground.

There are giant sequoias in the campground. (pointing) There’s one. (pointing) There are three over there. (pointing) There are four over there. You are welcome to park your car and take a look around.

I also gave a lot of people directions to the next grove of giant sequoias, about twenty miles away.

Sunday was a little slower, but otherwise the same.

The highlight of Sunday was another set of nice campers, this time a family recently moved to Tucson with a Grateful Dead dancing bear sticker on the back window of their Volvo. They asked me questions about the trees in the campground, and I got to give my talk about the differences between giant sequoias and coastal redwoods.

So now I’m on my second of two days off and will go back up the mountain in a few hours.

I don’t know what the state of the trail will be when I get back up there. Forest Service workers were  there cutting hazard trees on Sunday. (Today’s our Monday, the young man monitoring the closed entrance to the trail told me cheerfully.) Last I heard, the Forest Service was planning to have the trail closed through the end of the month. Yep, closed for Memorial Day. If that’s how it works out, guess who’s going to get to talk to hundreds of disappointed visitors during the three-day weekend.

If you guessed it’s going to be me…you are correct. If you also guessed this is a duty I am not pleased about, you’d be correct about that too.

I took this photo of two giant sequoias which grew together and fused over hundreds (maybe thousands) of years.

I took this photo of two giant sequoias which grew together and fused over hundreds (maybe thousands) of years.

Steps to the Tule River

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On California Highway 190, between Camp Nelson and Springville, there was what appeared from the road to be a scenic overlook with steps (mysterious steps) leading down and vanishing.

Mysterious steps.

Mysterious steps.

There was no sign other than standard Forest Service signs, nothing to let one know where one was or where one might end up. On the way back from Springville, I decided to stop. There’s a place to pull off the road with three or four marked parking spaces and two plastic trash cans on either side of the steps, each chained to the guardrail. And just so everyone knows, no, I wasn’t chemically altered in any way, although I was battling motion sickness due to the continuous curves in the mountain road. I started down the steps, although, yes, it occurred to me that I was alone and no one knew I was there, but I decided whatever. If I wait to go places until I have someone to go with me, I won’t be going many places. So I walked down the steps. And then the path turned, and then there were more steps leading down. There were more turns, more steps, then a wooden bridge. All the while I could hear the river, but not see it.

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Looking down the steep steps to the wooden bridge.

There was vegetation all around and boulders, and if not for the fairly big lizards and lack of oppressive humidity, I could have been in Tennessee or Kentucky or North Carolina.

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Fairly big lizard.

I continued descending the steps, thinking, should I be afraid? Maybe I should have been afraid because I didn’t know who was at the bottom of the steps or what people might be doing down there, but I wasn’t scared at all. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, entering a totally magical and mysterious world. Then the steps ended, and the ground in front of me was just rock, and where the ground of rock ended, I could see the river tumbling over other rocks, not quite a waterfall, and not rapids, but water tumbling down. I carefully climbed down the rock I was standing on toward the river. It was a gentle decline; I wasn’t repelling down the side of a mountain. The rocks I walked over were mostly flat and not slippery. IMG_2852I walked into an area with no vegetation, just these smooth, mostly flat, ever so slightly curving rocks right up to the water. The earth was stone, smoothed out, gently sloping, white. It was unearthly. Of course, it was earthly, because I was still on earth, but I also felt as if I was somewhere else, maybe the moon. (And then, because of the hippie I am, I thought of the Grateful Dead song “Standing on the Moon.”) When I looked over to the river, I saw that the water tumbled over rocks and into a pool. The water in the pool was green, but also clear enough to see rocks under the water. It was somehow both clear and green. I thought about sliding into that clear green water, but it wasn’t nearly hot enough for that, and I’m not much of a swimmer. I’m brave (or maybe foolish), but I’m not brave (or foolish) enough to get in a pool in river all alone when no one has any idea where I am. Besides, the water was probably pretty cold, and I do not like to be cold and wet.

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Water tumbling into the pool.

IMG_2848 The pool was big and looked fairly deep (another reason not to get in—I don’t like to be in water over my head, even in pools made by humans). There were big rocks at the edge of that pool. The water went over those rocks, and there was another only slightly smaller) pool. IMG_2854 The whole scene was totally amazing and miraculous. I walked on those big flat rocks and wondered if I were actually dreaming. The whole scene had an absolutely dream-like quality to it, so different from up above where I’d left the van. The terrain had changed so quickly—I think that’s what made it feel like a dream. It didn’t seem possible that my whole world could have changed so fast. I felt as if I were mentally stumbling around (my feet were steady), and I kept thinking, are you KIDDING me? I didn’t stay too very long. I hadn’t brought water with me, and I knew I had to climb all those steps to get back to the van. I took photos, but I fear they won’t do justice to the experience. (I don’t think photos ever do justice to an experience, but sometimes they convey something close to what really happened.)

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There’s the wooden bridge and the stairs I had to climb back up to the van. I like the way the wooden bridge is sitting on top of those boulders.

I just don’t even know how to explain how I felt. I was totally in the moment. My life was absolutely real, while at the same time I also felt as if I were in a dream. It was the flip side of those dreams that feel so real; it was absolute realness that felt like a dream. This little excursion was a blessing because it reminded me why I’d come to California: to see new places and have adventures.

 

All photos in this post were taken by me.