Sweeping Feathers

When we tell people that we live in the wilderness for six plus months of the year the three most common responses are:

“Oh, how peaceful and relaxing that must be,” spoken with a dreamy sort of envy.

“What do you DO with all that time you have out there?” asked with concern and disbelief.

“Why?” said with a sense of horror and pity.

When I hear the first response I try to imagine what the speakers are envisioning.  Do they see Doug sitting quietly on the river bank watching the water flow past?  In their minds am I in a meadow lying in clover in the company of gently swaying trees?  Are we perched on a hillside with a glass of wine watching the sunset?  If so, the answer is Yes, we do all of these things…occasionally.  Well, OK!, in all honesty the wine and sunset happens almost every evening but what about the rest of the time?

In answer to the second response…have you ever tried to sweep feathers?  Not the bigger, stiffer kind but the tiny, soft neck and breast feathers of a small bird?  When we first entered the historic cabin this spring there was a pile of just this type of feathers under the table in the main room.  No other parts of a bird were there, no beak nor bones nor feet nor tail feathers, just a downy pile of pale grey feathers.  There was evidence that the bird had been alive inside for a while.  There were bird droppings on the floor, the furniture and on nearly every window sill.  It is unclear how it and its unknown assailant managed to get inside but the cabin is 105 years old, hastily built and despite our best efforts, it is porous.  It was depressing to think of the small bird trapped inside and struggling to escape only to be devoured in the end by “something,” so I set about getting rid of the evidence.  Taking a broom from the next room, I brushed it into the feathers under the table.  Immediately I was in the midst of a feather tornado.  Feathers flew around me, out into room, scattering everywhere.  “Hmm,” I thought, “This would be a good job for a vacuum.  I didn’t have a vacuum, just a broom.  I tried sweeping the broom more gently.  The feathers swirled around my ankles and darted into darkened corners like tiny frightened animals.  I experimented with various sweeping styles, none of which were very effective, but about twenty minutes later I felt comfortable that I had most of them corralled and out the door.  During those twenty minutes I started to think about this feather experience as a metaphor for the work we do here.

What DO we do with our time?  The glib answer is “Anything thing we want!”  But the truth is we have to do almost everything for ourselves.  In the first place we have to do everything that anyone does at home: cleaning, cooking, washing, gardening, etc.  The difference is that it must all be done with fewer conveniences so it is a lengthier and more physical process with no options to hire any assistance…. and we are dealing with an eighty-five acre property.  If anything breaks down, which it does, one cannot call out to schedule a repairman to drop by.  One (meaning Doug) must read the manuals, learn how to take the dang thing apart, find whatever part is broken, try to repair it or somehow create a new one out of something, put it all back together again to see if it works and, if not, repeat the process.  This includes things as diverse as the tractor, the propane refrigerator or the cherry pitter.  As you know from an earlier post there is also the water issue…the ongoing water issue.

DitchAll our water comes in ditches from Trout Creek.  We control the flow of water by moving stones.  When we first return each year the ditches must be cleared of debris, including large trees that have fallen into them, and repairs made for any breaks that may have (always) occurred.  Then rocks that have closed off the ditches for the winter must be moved to allow water to be diverted.  Once the water is flowing we find where the real problems are.  If (when) there are problems the water is shut down and we begin again.  After all the ditch issues are solved the water must run for at least 12 hours to let the sediment settle.  It is only after the water problem is solved that we can begin to clean…the cabins and ourselves.  Did I say solved?  Bad choice of words, dealing with water is ongoing.  If it rains too long or too hard Doug is back up on the ditch diverting water before it overflows.  When it is dry and hot we are back to moving more rocks.

There are fields and pastures to be mowed; trees to be pruned and doctored; gardens to be planted, weeded, fertilized, and harvested; chickens to be cared for; noxious weeds throughout the property to be eliminated; fallen trees to be hauled away and milled for use in repairing the old buildings; firewood to be chopped; brush to be cut back.  These are just some of the regular, ongoing chores.

PartnersIn addition between June 15th and August 30th we regularly have two to three groups of visitors a day.  Of course there are some that come before and after but those months are the busiest.  There may be days when no one shows up but we have had as many as eight groups in one day.  Typically a group size is 10-20 people.  They come up from floating the river to see the historic cabin and learn about the history.  Doug or I will stop what we are doing to greet them.  If they want to have a tour and history talk we are happy to do that because we care about the history and legacy of this place and love to pass it on to anyone interested.  It is the same reason we wrote our book, “Merciless Eden.”  Talking to a group typically takes at least an hour.  Actually it is a pleasant diversion from some fairly grubby chores to be able to sit in the shade of the walnut tree and talk with interesting folks.

Lastly there are the projects.  Last year we renovated the back room of the historic cabin.  I will dedicate an entire blog to that process one of these days.

Sign1This year our first project was to install three interpretive signs (like you might see at national parks) so that visitors can read those if they don’t have time for a tour.  We (mainlyDoug) worked on the signs last winter and had them designed/manufactured.  Doug used the backhoe to dig the holes and built 10″ diameter cylinders from old fencing to form a hole for concrete around each of the six posts. I helped back fill around the cylinders with rock, mix cement and install the stands.

The second project was to repair the old chicken coop. Our neighbor Greg (7 miles upstream) came to help Doug build a smaller, more secure enclosure inside the old coop. At the end of this month Greg and Sue will bring us six hens from their flock.

Eyesore1The third project was to clean up an old dump behind the blacksmith shop on the property that had been there for decades before we bought the place.  The area was a mess of old trash, what seemed like a mile of old rusty fencing and posts, rusty old cans, broken bottles and window panes, broken tools, hundreds of old nails and screws, and many pieces of unidentifiable junk.  There was no other way for people to deal with their trash out here.  No garbage trucks or recycling organizations were coming around to pick up refuse so people burned what they could and threw the rest into a pile or over the hill.  There are about five of these old dumpsites on the property.  This one was just the most visible eyesore.  Eyesore2Today we still separate our trash into burnables and the non-burnables are taken by plane or jet boat for appropriate disposal whenever we go out.

The fourth project, which starts next week and should take about a week, will be to re-chink and treat the logs of the historic cabin.  We have a grant from the Idaho Heritage Trust to cover half the cost of materials and an expert on historical chinking will be coming in to help along with two of our friends. This will help to preserve the cabin and make it less porous.

The fifth project, also partly funded by a grant from the Idaho Heritage Trust, is to replace the old broken windows in the historic cabin with new windows that are historically accurate.  The windows have been made by a woman who does this type of historical work but we will be installing them ourselves with help from friends.  Probably another week’s worth of work following the cabin chinking.

The sixth project, scheduled to begin mid-June, will be huge…the remodeling of the little one room cabin where Doug and I live.  During this project which should take about a month we will be having a construction crew living here on the property with us.  Doug and I will be moving into the historic cabin during this time.  That project will probably end up as several blogs.

So, that is an example of what we DO with our time in the wilderness.  It does seem like sweeping feathers…every stroke accomplished creates a whole new set of tasks.  There are always more feathers hiding in the dark corners.

In answer to that third response I referenced in the beginning, “Why?”  That will be another blog.

 

Caught In The Act…Houdini Bear Takes Inadvertent Selfie

My beautiful pictureThe barn workroom was in shambles.  We had flown in to Campbell’s Ferry only hours earlier.  When Doug unlocked the barn door he was greeted with devastation.  His neatly organized shelves and tool racks were a disaster.  The jars holding nails and screws organized by size and type were broken and their contents strewn across the floor.  The area for garden storage was ripped apart.  Sacks of fertilizer and garden soil were torn open and partially devoured.  The spray containers, empty planting pots, and garden tools were torn off the shelves, scattered and showed teeth marks.  Only a very few things throughout the barn were in their assigned spaces.  Walking gingerly through the wreckage, Doug found his way to the back of the workroom.  The huge, stout locked storage bin, which we had always thought to be invincible, had a gaping rip through its heavy boards.  An empty torn 31 pound bag of dog food lay on the floor next to a large ravaged bag of dry cat food and a 15 pound bag of chicken scratch.  The evidence was clear…BEAR. Searching the space, Doug could not figure out how the bear managed to get inside.  The outside door was locked, all the walls and floors were intact.  Although there is an opening at the top of a ten foot high wall, there were no claw or scratch marks to show that the bear had scrambled over the side.  It appeared we had a Houdini-like bear who could suddenly materialize inside the barn and then disappear without a trace.  In the midst of trying to get our water supply going, Doug had to stop to repair the damaged feed bin to safeguard the remaining pet food inside.  He quickly repaired the hole with the existing boards and went off to deal with the water system.

The next morning Houdini had struck again.  The repaired bin was torn apart and more bags of food were torn open, eaten and scattered on the floor.  Although he still had the water system to work on, Doug took the time to put up thick new boards and secured the lid of the storage bin with 3 inch screws.  There was no time to clean anything up so the thick layer of dog/cat/chicken food remained on the floor.  Now Doug was really getting annoyed.  He went on-line to buy a bear tag.  We knew that the bear was returning to the scene of the crime around nightfall so, after dinner, Doug set up a stake out at the barn and waited…and waited.  About 8:45 PM he returned to the cabin without seeing the bear.  No more than 20 minutes later I was standing at the sink doing dishes when I could just make out a bear-shape coming out of the woods.  Doug took his gun and quietly moved toward the barn.  He saw the bear slipping behind the barn wall and followed.  Just then the bear stuck his head around the corner, spotted Doug and took off for the woods.  Doug fired after the bear but it is hard to hit a black bear running through the woods at twilight.  In any case, we figured the bear would be scared enough to think twice about returning.

My beautiful pictureWe figured wrong.  If he thought twice he must have thought it was worth another try.  The next morning…deja vu all over again…the new repair job was in splinters. We were now moving past the “annoyed” stage.  Doug repaired the bin again, set some old traps that had been hanging on the barn wall since the 1940s and buried the the traps in the food mess the bear had left on the floor.  They weren’t really large enough to capture a bear but they might make an impression if they clamped shut on a bear nose or paw. A game camera was positioned in the barn.  Motion-activated, it would capture a mug shot of the perpetrator.  That night Doug set up an unsuccessful watch in the barn for several hours. We went to bed hopeful that we might be awakened by a surprised howling if Houdini stumbled onto a trap.  Unfortunately, our sleep was uninterrupted.

But, in the morning it was just like “Groundhog Day”, the bin was torn open but Houdini had managed to avoid the traps while setting them off.  No spare bear parts were in evidence and not a drop of blood.  Doug brought the game camera back to the cabin and there were the photos…a profile of Houdini inspecting Doug’s repair work with what must have been, by now, an air of contempt and a full frontal inadvertent selfie.  We had evidence!  That bear could never get away with proclaiming innocence.  That night Doug set up another stake out.  It was close to dark when I heard a single shot ring out through the stillness.  Doug returned to report that Houdini was last seen fleeing over a ridge headed to the next county with the not so pleasant sting of #6 birdshot from a 20 gauge shotgun to remind him that the Ferry was not the best of lunch stops.

For now at least Houdini has done a disappearing act.  The storage bin has been intact and undisturbed for over a week.

We never have figured out how he was getting in and out of the barn.

Welcome to the Wilderness

CoverOur flight from Cascade, Idaho dipped down between the canyon walls, deep enough so you had to lean close to the window to see the sky above the cliffs. The frothy brown Salmon River churned below. Looking past Walt’s (our pilot) right ear, I could see the small green clearing of our destination, Campbell’s Ferry. My safety precaution of munching on gummy bears to keep the plane aloft had worked again. Rita (our Vizsla) woke and uncurled herself from my feet, scenting home.   Walt banked the single engine Cessna to circle the landing strip, our usual approach, and said something to Doug that I could not hear over the engine noise. But instead of continuing the approach he circled again, lower this time. And a third time, lower yet, till it seemed like we were skimming the tops of tall pines. I searched the landing strip, trying to understand, as the plane continued to circle. Finally I saw what Walt’s young, sharp pilot’s eyes had seen immediately, a herd of deer grazing on the new spring grass of the clearing. It took a dozen low passes before the deer were annoyed enough to amble into the woods, clearing our path. Walt executed his usual perfect landing: just high enough to miss the tree tops, just low enough to meet the ground at the markers, and just the right speed to slow the plane before it plowed into the forest at the top of the strip.

Flight8Turning the plane, he taxied down the 19-degree hillside to the loading area, turned off the engine and opened the door. As always, Rita was the first to deplane, jumping over my feet and diving out the door to run and roll on the hillside. Next I crawled out into the wan sunlight, followed by Walt and Doug. Behind my seat the little plane was stuffed to the ceiling with our gear and supplies, which Walt began to unload while Doug and I carried things to a safe distance on the hillside. Although the plane was filled to capacity it was only half of what we needed. The other half was still waiting at Arnold Aviation. If the weather held Walt would make a return flight with the rest of the gear. During our flight in we could see the forecasted weather front approaching from the northwest but the winds were still fairly light and Walt thought he had time for one more trip.

He revved the plane’s engine, taxied back up the hill, turned at the top and charged down the slope. The plane, much lighter now, lifted into the air easily, banked sharply left to avoid the mountain directly across the river, and disappeared down the canyon. Doug and I walked down the hill toward the cabin with Rita scampering around us. Sure enough, Walt was back within an hour and a half with the rest of the gear, plus 3 propane tanks.

In the meantime Doug managed to start the tractor to haul everything down to the cabin. We set the boxes outside to begin sorting what was needed (and would fit) in our one-room cabin and what would be taken down for storage in the larger historic cabin. No sooner had we started this process when it began to rain. Everything had to be carried into the one room cabin to sort. Basically it covered every surface. It took about an hour but finally things were at least inside the respective cabins if not yet put away.

IMG_1696We call the 16’ X 24’ one-room cabin where we live at the Ferry, the Crowe cabin. The Crowe family, who owned Campbell’s Ferry from 1960 until 1988, built it for occasional use as their hunting cabin. Calling it rustic would be to glorify it.  The flooring is 60’s era speckled linoleum tile, cracked and chipped with age; its fissures guard decades of dirt that resist the broom. The low ceiling is white painted plywood boards that buckle between their cross supports, giving the draped appearance of a tent.

Our queen-sized bed takes up most of the room. The rest of the furniture is hand-me-downs and cast-offs: a small rustic (there’s that word again) dining table covered in oilcloth; 2 small wooden arm-chairs; 2 very dusty, worn maroon swivel upholstered chairs from my mother’s bedroom long ago; a rather wonderful simple old wooden slab chair, painted orange, made by Jim Moore who lived across the river from 1897 until he died in 1942; 2 rough-hewn wooden benches long enough to seat two people; a poorly made chest with 10 drawers; a once-nice medium-sized veneer drop lid chest that has seen better days, now stained and water marked; a small wooden three drawer cabinet holds tools, batteries and odds & ends. Over Rita’s crate Doug has built a simple wooden table (again covered in oil cloth) that serves as his desk. Sagging boards are anchored to the walls, making a hodge-podge of shelves. Old wooden stacked kerosene boxes hold the dishes, glasses, and food supplies.

The south end of the cabin is the “kitchen” with the following crammed side to side: a propane refrigerator; a small propane stove; and a circa 1940s metal unit holding a chipped sink, 4 drawers and 4 small cupboards, pitted and somewhat rusty. There is also a small eco-friendly washing machine purchased when we moved here in 2006.

At its best the cabin could never be called pristine but it was looking particularly gloomy on our arrival. Inclement weather prior to our departure last fall had prevented me from doing any laundry (laundry must be carried down the hill and pinned to the garden fence to dry). Rather than fly the dirty laundry out to be cleaned in Tucson and then carted back up to Idaho, I had a large pile folded in the laundry basket. Although I had tried to keep the floor clean, some outside mud had been tracked in during our last minute packing and departure chores. Nothing had been improved by a small group of our male partners who had stayed in the cabin, hunting for a few days, after we left.

As is always the case when the cabins are left empty, the mice invaded. A large bag of birdseed unwisely left inside was torn into, leaving seeds and seed casings scattered across the floor, up on shelves and even inside drawers. Nearly every surface was dotted with little black mouse feces. They shredded most of the cleaning rags under the sink and chewed a hole in a new pillowcase and pillow. Don’t ask how they get in. We don’t know…but they do.

Running water does flow to the sink but we must close down the water system before we leave in the fall, thus the last hours before departure and typically the first few days after our arrival in the spring are without running water.

Doug carts several 5 gallon buckets of water up from the lower ditch which is kept running through the winter. Naturally this is a great deal of hard work and water must be used sparingly from the buckets. All the water comes to Campbell’s Ferry through a network of open ditches from Trout Creek (a quarter mile away) dug by the early settlers for domestic use and irrigation. On our return the upper ditch, which supplies water to the Crowe cabin, must be cleaned of debris and repaired before we can open it at the diversion from the creek. Every few years the built-up silt must be dug out. This was one of those years. Even after the water enters the ditch we must wait 24 hours for it to clear before using. After 4 days of Doug’s manual labor he thought it was ready. He started the water toward the holding pond and tanks before dinner last night. After dinner, in a rainstorm, he went up to check. The ditch had sprung a massive leak where a rotten root had created an underground tunnel. The water was running down hill through the forest. His efforts slowed but failed to stop it.  Since darkness was coming on so it was left overnight. He is working on it again today.

We have now been at the Ferry for five days without running water. Dishes must be washed sparingly. The bare minimum of cleaning can be done because it is too difficult to carry enough water. Neither of us has had more than a light sponging since we arrived.

Welcome to the Wilderness

More tales of our arrival to come but…enough for now.

The Days and Daze of Lists

These days are endless list-making.  Things to do before disappearing into the wilderness for six months.  Before leaving Tucson there was the list of things to buy that might only be available there (1), the list of things to pack (2).  There was the most painful list of all…what clothes to bring along (3).  A group of nominees were selected and moved to the guest bedroom where they were matched with the required accessories, then the heart wrenching process of breaking up with outfits that simply could not be accommodated within the suitcase and had to be returned to the closet to sulk in darkness for half a year.  Those with travel visas went on the list “To Pack” in the suitcase.  Actually there were three “suitcases”: a small one for things needed on the two day drive north, another for in-town clothes for whatever trips might take us back to Boise, and a third bag for clothes that would go directly into the ranch.  So many decisions.  Before departure there is also the list of tasks for folding up the house and handing it over to its guardian (4).

The day-one drive ended at in St. George, UT where we met friends for a lovely dinner.  I had packed clothes for cooler weather because of the northward trek and checked the weather before we left.  Somehow it was 89 degrees in St. George on our arrival.  My cashmere sweaters looked very unappealing and I felt fairly foolish.  The next morning it was 27 degrees.  As the thermometer fell I felt my IQ rising.  Before we reached Provo, UT we were driving through a snow storm and now I was downright brilliant.

It was early evening when we arrived in Boise.  The snow had stayed behind in Utah but it was still chilly as we settled into our friends’ home and began to make more lists:  a list for meetings with the Forest Service (5), a list for meeting with the Idaho Department of Water Resources management (6), a list for people to see before we fly off (7), a shopping list for 6 months worth of food, cleaning and living supplies…YIKES! (8), a list for garden supplies (9), a list for chicken accouterment (10), a list for cat and dog needs (11), a list for six months worth of prescriptions (12), a list of needs for the farm equipment and systems (13).  In additions there are the lists associated with the projects we will be doing this year:  a list of supplies for planting new fruit trees (14), a list of re-chinking supplies and window replacement needs for the historic cabin (15), a HUGE list of building supplies for the major renovation of the 16′ X 24′ former hunting cabin where we reside (16).  Lastly the master calendar list that dictates the deadlines for completing all these lists (17).  Is it surprising that we are feeling a bit dazed?

When we finally arrive at Campbell’s Ferry there will be a new set of lists of tasks to be accomplished immediately: clean out a half mile of ditches to get the water flowing toward the cabin, clean the rodent scat out of the shelves and crevices  in the cabins, wash EVERYTHING (dishes/shelves/floors/windows), get the internet up and running, etc..  Then the real work of the ranch will begin.

All this preparation makes me think about those pioneers who had to pack their wagons for the trek west, deciding what to take and what to leave behind…likely forever.  What plans they had to make for their survival!  The sheer physical exertion of the journey is daunting enough.  I guess we have it easy…although it doesn’t feel like it at this moment.

Time Travel

Flight In 2014

Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness… Flying into Campbell’s Ferry

In April each year I am transported one hundred years back in time. Well, perhaps that is a slight exaggeration since my vehicle is a Cessna 206 that lands on a grassy hillside that serves as the airstrip to a property called Campbell’s Ferry, a historic homestead surrounded by 2.4 million acres of wilderness. Once there my husband and I live a life-style much like the earliest settlers.  Our water still comes from a mountain stream a quarter mile away, flowing in open ditches dug by the first residents.  Our fruit and vegetables are grown on site.  We have outhouses and an outdoor shower in place of indoor plumbing.  Our nearest neighbors are 4 miles away, accessible by a narrow trail following the Salmon River that flows past the property.  Our residence is a one room cabin 16’X 24′.

In a week we will leave Tucson, where we live six months in a real house with modern conveniences.  Traveling back in time takes survival preparation: planning, logistics, shopping, packing, transporting.  It takes time, effort and a little mind bending to prepare for a very different life.  Life in the past is not easy, as your early ancestors would tell you if you asked.  Nevertheless, I anticipate my arrival there with something like the excitement one might feel for a rendezvous with a sweetheart after a six month separation.  Why?  This place that is spectacularly beautiful can be difficult, demanding hard physical labor. It also surrenders an uncanny serenity, even spirituality, to every day living.  Part of this spirituality comes from the simple joy of living in nature’s wild heart.  Another aspect comes at the end of the day when you can actually see hard evidence of your day’s work: the garden is weeded, the ditches are cleaned and free flowing, repairs have been made on the historic buildings, the fields have been mowed.  It is a more tangible kind of satisfaction than the abstract knowledge that a report has been written or meetings scheduled for the next day.  At least it is more “real” to me when, at the end of the day, I can sit with the sunset reflecting through my glass of wine as I look out and see the improvements that are the result of my mangled manicure and sore muscles.  I can say, “I accomplished that and made things better.”

I keep a daily journal of our lives while at Campbell’s Ferry.  I wish that my ancestor’s had kept journals or diaries but, if they did, none survive to my knowledge.  I have tangible treasures that help keep them alive in my mind: my great-grandmother’s silk Chinese rug, my grandmother’s lamp, my father’s carved Indonesian chest brought back from his year working on a tramp steamer, some pieces of my mother’s antique furniture.  But I have little, apart from a few saved letters, that speak of their day to day lives.  These handed down treasures live in Tucson and I feel sad saying goodbye to them for the months we will be away.  Through this “time-travel”, however, I feel like I connect back through the ages to the people who would otherwise just be names on my genealogy tree.  All of us, if we go back far enough, are descendants of those who lived lives in wilderness, so even though I leave my grandmothers’ things behind I feel a deeper connection to my ancestors by living a similar life.  In a way I enter their lives and experience them at a profound level.

In this blog I will be writing about life at Campbell’s Ferry past and present but I also would like to offer space on the blog to those who are living a similar existence or to those who have family stories, diaries, or journals of wilderness life they would like to share.  Submissions should be sent for review.  Submission does not guarantee they will be posted on the blog but I would hope that most are publishable. The person making the submissions bears the responsibility of ownership of the material and through submission agrees that they may be published.  Together, I hope, we will be saving a history that would otherwise be forgotten.