A Prairie Evening

Prairie grasses stretch in two directions. Their roots zig-zag deep into the soil keeping it earth bound while their skinny arms above ground stretch toward the low sun. The long stocks do not want the radiant warmth to disappear.

As the sun fades into the horizon the grasses bow down as though in prayer and in anticipation of heavy dew that will surely gather overnight this early spring eve. Meadowlarks sing to the golden skyline asking for just a bit more time to share their joy of living on the plains.

A pallet of pastel clouds and pale sky arch above my head. Only subtle rises of amber knolls and silhouetted birds perched on thistle stocks breakup the linear horizon encircling me 360 degrees.

The sun vanishes from the western sky leaving the wind to whisper in dusk. The birds find invisible roosting locations while crickets start up their nightly chirping. The sound is familiar like a parent telling the same bedtime story and sooths me as I lay in my sleeping bag, waiting for night to carry me away.

Hecla Award from Colorado Writing School

I recently won first place in the category of memoir from Colorado Writing School’s 2017 Helca Award. Here are the judges comments.

“The writer takes us on a terrifying winter’s journey, one in which the main character’s survival remains in doubt until the very end. The narrator is a solid storyteller, and the writer’s dual writing strengths of both pacing and dialogue display themselves throughout this harrowing personal account.”

This story will also appear in my soon-to-be published book, which will include collections of my outdoor adventures, self-reflections, photography and illustrations.

LIVE

Prologue: Cerulean gave way to orange and red as the sun made its daily trip across the sky before disappearing behind wintery mountains. An eerie night-glow enveloped three cold, exhausted, travelers as they navigated darkness.

The Long Ski                 

We arrived at the plowed-out parking area much later than planned, around 1 P.M. The sun was bouncing off the snow in its blinding way on a bluebird day at 9,000 feet. My friend Betsy, along with her dog, Jasmine and I were out on this idyllic day for some backcountry skiing. Betsy, normally a very strong, athletic 52-year old woman, was eager to try out some new gear despite lost strength from recent rapid weight loss. She tucked her long fiery-red hair into a ball cap for sun protection. I’m five months younger than Betsy, and equally fit with premature grey hair, which often makes people question my age. Jaz, a beautiful black and tan Australian Shepherd with pointed ears, immediately began running around the parking area, anxious to get on the trail. As we dawned our daypacks with minimal provisions we commented on the lack of snow on the peaks before us but grateful for the warmer temperatures.

I suggested a loop route that would take us around the base of the small mountain before us, through open terrain, then through the forest. We began following a snow mobile track that I had seen from the top of the mountain the week before. From that vantage point it appeared to continue into the forest where I assumed it connected at some point with a 4×4 road to complete the loop. The trail wove through open meadows with little incline but the warm temperature was making the snow mushy and more work than either of us had hoped for causing us to remove some clothing early. We skied this wide track for over an hour when it abruptly ended just inside the forest edge — an unpleasant discovery to be sure. We checked the map to see just how far we might be from the road or connecting trails.

“I think it’s going to take us as long to retrace our steps as it is to just keep going until we hit the road,” I said. There were still a few hours of daylight so I felt confident this was true. And neither of us seems particularly tired and certainly not cold. Jaz had been running ahead, then returning to Betsy’s side and was enjoying the outing. But my desire to complete the loop would be the worst mistake of the day.

Upon entering the forest the snow conditions were better because the sun had not melted the ice crystals nearly as much but it was still too soft to ski smoothly through nor could the snow banks hold us up. Almost immediately we were breaking trail in knee to thigh deep snow causing us to stop every few yards to catch our breath. The snow was taxing Jaz as well as she jumped out of each hole she created while following behind us.

Soon Betsy questioned not only our route but our exact location.

“I’m sure we just need to get down to the creek, cross it and then catch the road. It’s probably only going to take anther half an hour or so,” I insisted on our next rest, leaning heavily on my poles. Again I could not have been more wrong.

We struggled through that dense forest and deep powder for at least two hours. I could barely hear chickadees calling over my heavy breathing while breaking trail. With each step the skis felt heavier and my knees began to ache from the constant strain. We had to stop every few minutes to bend over, catch our breath and rest. I could feel sweat running down my back. Jasmine whimpered often indicating her own fear and rising anxiety as she worked her way through the snow that she could barely see over. Betsy and I both were using up precious energy calling and encouraging Jasmine to keep coming. Once we stopped and tried come up with some way of pulling the dog behind us but we had nothing in our packs that would work. And I was trying to ignore that the sun was dropping to the horizon at an alarming rate. Still, I remained hopeful if we reached the road before it set completely and we would be back to the parking area by seven or eight o’clock.

The snow was now hip high and the hillside much steeper. Suddenly we found ourselves on a small cliff with a narrow shoot that ended in the aspen grove that was part of the creek and valley bottom we needed to traverse. As we stopped to rest and decide on an approach the sun’s rays were glowing red-gold against the mountain peak across the valley. I could not help but notice the beauty despite our situation.

“Man I wish I had my camera. Just look at that amazing sunset!” I exclaimed.

“Wow,” Betsy agreed with a weak voice. She looked pale and she admitted to feeling sick. My heart pounded even harder hearing that. My anxiety of the situation turned to grave concern and I realized we were in for a very long evening at best and could become serious at any turn.

Looking down the shoot before us I said, “I don’t think I can ski down this Betsy but maybe you can.”

“No way,” she replied.

Off came the skis to scoot on our butts down the shoot. I went first with the hopes that I would take as much of the snow with me as possible to clear a safer way.

The three of us came off the precipice unharmed but then Betsy yelled out, “Shit, my ski just fell out of my hand. Do you see it?”

“Fuck. Are you kidding me? Where do you think it went?”

Shit, how am I going to get us out of here if she has only one ski, I asked myself. My heart was now pounding in my ears and a real fear shot through my whole body like electricity.

After a few minutes of searching she hollered, “Found it,” and we both breathed a deep sigh of relief.

As we exited the aspen grove and entered the creek bottom we were all beyond exhausted— Betsy and Jaz more so. I had to retrace my path a few times to help Jaz when she seemed unable to pull herself forward, crying and whimpering almost constantly. Betsy’s stride had become barely a shuffle. We were both getting very cold — hands and feet numb—but we also needed a longer rest. We drank some water and split a Powerbar.

Our progress had gone from slow to glacial. My constant encouragement was about all that was keeping us moving. While we shuffled along I was desperately trying to think clearly and recall my knowledge about hypothermia while choking back fear that either Betsy or Jaz would at some point not be able to continue.

Darkness was now upon us and we still had not reached the road. I knew where it was and felt the easiest way to it was back up a small hill just a short distance from the creek we crossed but Betsy refused saying she just could not go uphill for any distance.

From this location we could see a light about a quarter mile away where there was a vacation home. I doubted anyone would be there but it was close enough that I thought it was worth me skiing ahead to see if by chance there might be someone there with a snow mobile to give Betsy a ride back to the van. I left Betsy and Jasmine behind with instructions to just stay in my tracks and keep moving while I skied toward that light as fast as I could.

As I suspected the ranch house was deserted. I turned around to ski back towards Betsy, all the while frantically screaming to her, “ Bets don’t give up! Just keep coming.” I was not even sure if she could really hear me but I yelled anyway, desperately hoping my voice would reach her. I was so afraid she would simply lie down and I would not be able to get her up again.

When we met up again I was so relieved to find Betsy still on her feet and Jaz right behind her. She leaned into me as I put my arms around her.

“I thought you might leave me here,” she said.

“I would never leave you Bets, never,” I said as I continued to hold her shivering body for a moment. As I released her I told her the bad news that there was no one at the house.

“Oh God. Can we break in?” she asked, “because I can’t make it back.”

“No way, the windows are too thick and the barn is locked up too. We just have to keep going. You CAN make it,” I said and once again put my arms around her.

When we reached the ranch I asked Betsy if her shirt was wet. She mumbled something incoherent so I reached underneath to feel for myself. My numb hands could still discern moisture so I told Betsy to take off her coat and shirt so that I could give her my extra wool sweater. “No,” she yelled at me and pushed me away —an irrational response and sign of hypothermia getting worse that almost made me panic.

“Bets your shirt is wet and you need something dry on you!”

“No,” she hollered a second time.

“Then at least put my sweater over your shirt.” I felt at least this would keep her from freezing to death. This she complied with, to my relief, and after zipping up everything as tight as possible we set off again.

With the help of Jaz we finally found the road by the ranch house and slowly started to make our way back to the van. At first I was in front of Betsy hoping it would encourage her to keep going, but I was moving too fast for her, so we switched places. The three of us — Jaz out front, Betsy, then myself — gradually made our way along the road. The moon would not rise for another two hours. Yet the clear sky filled with stars pinpricking holes into the inky canvas above and the pale glow of the snow provide enough light for us to see the edges of the road and general land features ahead of us. There was no wind and the only sound was the swishing of our skis scraping on the snow that was freezing back over. Every once in a while Betsy would turn around wordlessly to check if I was still behind her and each time I simply said “I’m right here. You are going to make it.” And even though she had to stop several times to dry heave she never did lay down.

My own limbs had become rubber and I’d lost all feeling in my feet and hands. For the last hour I kept my sight on the light, that dimly shone ahead, from the old barn located next to the parking area. For the longest time it seemed to never get any nearer or brighter, as if we were simply on a treadmill going no where (something we would both later recall in the same eerie fashion).

When we finally reached the vehicle I could not hold the key in my hand to open the door. It took several tries for me to push the unlock button on the key faub. I had to lift the dog into the back while Betsy struggled to get out of her skis. Our hands were too dysfunctional to remove our boots. Betsy collapsed in the passenger seat while I got behind the wheel and used both my club hands to turn the ignition. The dashboard clock read 10:28. We had been out for over nine hours.

With the heat blowing full blast I drove down the dirt road towards the highway for the 40-minute ride home. I made Betsy eat a tiny bit of granola and sip some water that fortunately was left in the car but it would take much more to revive her. As soon as I hit the blacktop I raced down the highway, talking to Betsy the whole way to keep her conscious. She mumbled and at one point starting counting out loud. “Good Bets, you just keep counting and STAY WITH ME!” I exclaimed.

Pulling into her driveway was a relief after driving with bulking boots, worrying about my friend’s condition and keeping an eye out for wildlife crossing the road for close to an hour. Betsy’s hands had become functional again during the ride home so she managed to take her boots off without my help, and headed upstairs to bed. I was worried about Jasmine as she limped into the house, hoping she had not pulled a muscle during our ordeal. My hands too had become operational again but still had that awfully painful pins-and-needles sensation while I pried my stiff boots off. My socks were soaking wet, as were my pants from the knee down. I put the kettle on for tea, filled Jaz’s food and water dish, then hustled up the stairs to check on Betsy. She had crawled under her down comforter but had not taken off all her wet clothes. I helped her put on dry socks and some fleece. She was shaking but that was a good sign that her hypothermia was reversing. She initially resisted drinking or eating anything saying,

“Just let me die. I want to die,” she murmered.

“You are not going to die. No fucking way! You are not ready to check out. You proved that tonight.” I retorted.

Once she was able to drink some tea and eat a few bites of banana and graham cracker, I slid to the floor by her bed completely spent, breathing almost as hard as I had on the mountain. My whole body began shaking too but more from exhaustion than hypothermia. Betsy asked if I was ok and told me to go take a hot shower and eat something too. “I’ll be fine,” I replied and slowly rose to tend to my own needs.

Epilogue

I have since replayed the event in my mind many times, as has she. We had come very close to losing our lives out there and we knew it. Had just one component been different we might have perished; if it had started to snow or it gotten windy; if Betsy had not found her runaway ski; had one of us gotten injured coming down the chute; had Betsy simply given up. When we recount the story, always there is a shaking of our heads realizing just how lucky we were. There are comments on the amazing beautiful sunset and night sky — how those elements coupled with our perseverance made the experience one we will never forget. And it added to the bond between us that will never be broken.

You shuffled on burdensome skis for hours despite your body screaming to stop and lie down, but you did not give up. Your will to live was stronger than your desire to die. Your time is not up. There is still much living to do!

Winter Silence

Fall River, Rocky Mtn. National Park

“I’ll see you later,” I called out to my housemate as I slung my dingy yellow daypack over my shoulder and headed out the front door. The air was crisp and still as I cranked over my mini van’s ignition. I let it idle with the defrost blasting while I scraped the thin, grey ice off the windshield that had formed overnight. I pulled out of the driveway and headed west in silence. As I made my way towards the foothills and slowly gained elevation, passing through small mountain towns whose names I knew since childhood, I tried to recall the last time I had been to Rocky Mountain National Park, my destination for a day hike — years, six or seven.

When I reached the Fall River entrance to the Park, there was only one car that was just pulling away from the leftmost small wooden hut — the only attended hut out of four lined across the road. A green light blinked just below the roof peak. The young woman dressed in her official navy-grey shirt, olive-green pants and ubiquitous park hat with four large dents and wide brim, greeted me with a sweet smile as I handed her my pass. She checked the expiration date, returned the card to me and asked if I needed anything else.

“Nope.”

“Have a good day then.”

“You too.” I pulled away from the entrance and into the Park in less than a minute — record for me and unheard of during the summer craze.

I reached the trail head just before 10AM. A single car stood in the parking area. Perfect! It would continue to be a very quiet day, which I desperately needed. I gauged the temperature. Not cold enough for a knit hat so just tucked my hair back into my ball cap. I adjusted my pack and waist belt for comfort and struck out on the well-worn path.

The trail was a mix of miniature puddles reflecting blue sky, icy patches, mud and stretches of dry gravel, signs of where the sun was able to reach through the trees and affect the snow that was slowly gathering this time of early winter. My steps were careful and precise over the slick spots since I had no special traction on my boots but on the other sections of trail my pace quickened and my stride widened. I hardly noticed my slightly labored breathing and looked forward to the workout ahead of me.

I was following the Roaring River in north-central part of the Park. The river is known for its 30-foot deep cut and fluvial fan, the results of the 1982 dam break on Lawn Lake near the headwaters of the stream. The water was gin-clear allowing the multi-colored stones beneath to shimmer and wave as the currents passed above them. Along the small eddies where the flow had slowed ice was forming foundations for snow bridges that would be created as winter continued to dress the landscape in a white coat.

The amount of snow on the trail increased in proportion to elevation gain as I continued to hike. My footfalls had different tones with the change of snow depth. At first came the sharp sound of breaking ice crystals, like snapping twigs. Paper-thin layers of frozen water were crusted over un-melted snow. Occasionally, my boot toes would catch the icy layer as I lifted out of the tracks they had just made, creating an echo to my breaking trail. As the snow became ankle deep my steps became more muted, softer, and it felt like I was walking on dry sand on a beach just above high tide giving me just enough resistance in my pace to cause me to lean into my stride further. When the snow reached calf height my footsteps were muffled to where it was difficult to hear individual steps, more of a steady swoosh, swoosh as if I were skiing.

After two and half hours of breaking trail I still had not reached Lawn Lake. My undershirt was soaked from sweat and my legs were feeling weighted by lead. Enough I thought. I stopped to rest on a log. I tipped my head back to fully catch the sun’s rays on my face and closed my eyes. A mountain chickadee was calling nearby but other than that the surrounding forest was silent.

I continued to enjoy the serenity with some hot tea from my thermos and homemade trail mix feeling my tired body revive. Resting there I recognized the stillness and beauty that surrounded me was even more rejuvenating than the sustenance. The wildness of the place was reaching my soul. It was a healing that only the spirit of such freedom can bring.

Returning to the van I shook my head at my luck of not seeing another human all day long in a landscape surrounded by people. There is something unspeakably valuable of experiencing such places without the presence of others. There are no distractions. The quiet allows the mind to wander and the spirit fly free. In a world that never seems to shut down or shut up, I would go mad without these quiet places to escape to even if just for a day.

 

 

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Faces in the Dark

Pencil sketch of barn owls © Claudia Strijek

They huddle close, their feathery bodies touching, passing warmth and security between themselves. Two pairs of  dark chocolate eyes are holes set inside white heart-shaped faces. I do not wish to disturb them yet I do not want to leave. This is my first encounter with barn owls and like a first kiss I want the moment to linger.

The two birds stare at me. I stare at them. Do they wonder what I’m thinking as much as I am wondering about their thoughts? Its difficult not to put such anthropomorphic characteristics on creatures like these owls. Perhaps it is simply my wish to believe we are communicating in some fashion, communicating on a level I rarely am able to achieve with most people.

The owls see me in a way that people often do not — simply human. They place no labels on me, they pass no judgment. For this alone I am grateful.

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Umpqua’s Rocky Bank

Aerial view of Umpqua River in central Oregon. © Claudia Strijek

I sat on a high spot on the rocky bank, my back to the cool breeze, and waiting for the sun to break through the clumps of silver clouds. After weeks of walking challenging terrain while conducting bird surveys, I was content to simply sit. The river flowed wide, swiftly and noisily, as the water hit in-stream boulders. The din, however, did not overpower the cries of spotted sandpipers searching for food as they scurried along the bank’s edge and along potholes. I looked cross-river to take in the contrasting lime-green big leaf maples and alders with the forest green Douglas firs – all of them almost met the water’s edge. This was excellent habitat for a variety of birds, mammals and the tallest firs provided lookout posts for bald eagles and osprey in search of their next meal.

Upstream on the distance hills, ran a clean-cut swath of pale green through the middle of the forest that looked like a recently shaved tan face. Managed timberland. A closer look with my binoculars revealed three stages of growth and harvest lines. I looked away thinking how unnatural those straight lines looked and tried not to pass judgment on those timber bosses. (For all I knew the last piece of paper I used came from those trees.)

As I continued to glass my surrounding, a figure popped out of the woods where the trail was. I watched this older man make his way to the water’s edge. A wide brimmed hat with a drawstring topped his head and shaded his grey and white bearded face. Black suspenders held his baggy pants up and his potbelly filled his midriff like a small beach ball. His gate was sure and stead, despite his age. Once he reached the river he gazed intently into the water with dark sunglasses — clearly a fisherman searching for fish. As he came closer to me I read a patch on his shirt that read “Project Healing Waters.” I was familiar with the program that helps war vets with trauma through fly-fishing outings. We chatted a bit about his role in the organization, the condition of the river and general health benefits of fly-fishing. A brief silence fell between us as if to confirm the river’s power to heal. Then as he turned to take leave he said, more to himself than me I suspect, “Yup, might have to come back here tonight and do some fishing.” “Good luck,” I replied as my eye caught sight of a soaring osprey overhead. I hoped both would be having fish for dinner that evening.

 

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Field Work Follies

It’s not all a bed of roses out there. (Well there are roses but they too have thorns.)

  • Rain that can chill to the bone.
  • Wind that will drive you insane.
  • Sun so intense you swear you are melting.
  • Bushes intent on tearing off your clothes.
  • Terrain so rough you need to duct tape your boots.
  • Joints and other body parts that scream at the end of the day, “What are you doing to us?”
  • Squirrels caught in your fan belt (very dead and very oderous).
  • Mice trying to get into your vehicle (best trick is to drive down a bumpy road ASAP and hope you bounce it out).
  • Socks and shoes so stinky they want to walk away from themselves.
  • Clothes so stiff from dirt and sweat they could pose as scarecrows without propping.
  • Insects seen and unseen wanting your blood.

    midges with marsh wren in background
  • Bugs so thick your camera focuses on them instead of bird you are aiming at.
  • Poisonous plants that can make you scratch for days.
  • Cold food that should be hot; hot food that should be cold.
  • Broken or lost eyeglasses leaving you feeling like Mr. Magoo.
  • A slow leak in your air mattress leaving you on the cold ground around 2am.
  • A small hole in your tent that only a mosquito can fit through — and of course does.

 

Is it all worth it? Must be because I keep coming back to it.

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Red Eyes

Spotted Towhee – © Claudia Strijek

The old ones were here when the erupting earth spewed forth a fire river. They saw the red and orange molten rock fill the valley and saw huge plumes of smoke. They stared at the changing landscape for too long and the red burned into their eyes. So now we all have red eyes to remind us of a time that passed but may come again.

This is my take on a Native American tale I heard not long ago. After being in Lava Beds NP for two weeks walking over all that cooled lava flow I could not help but think of this common bird with its red eye.

Silhouette

Juniper trees rooted on the sloping hillside are silhouetted against the dawn sky. They appear on dimensional like black paper cut outs. The sky gives no sense of depth either. The white light of the morning star and quarter moon are punched out of midnight blue that graduates to orange along the horizon. A western tanager sings it’s robin-like song, as if to coax the sun to rise just a little quicker.

sunrise at Lava Beds NP

Eyes Upon Me

I glance up haphazardly thru thin trees, binoculars in hand, looking for winged activity. My eyes meet a fierce stare only a few feet above me. I freeze in place hoping to not cause this little hunter to flush. Two small golden eyes, surrounded by spotted feathers forming a disc shape on either side of a pale hooked beak, are the features I notice immediately. How long have you been watching me, I ask myself? Like so many forest dwellers I’m certain its detection is easily ten-times my own and has in all likelihood noticed my fellow bird surveyors and me for some time already.

I whisper to the others of my discovery and they slowly move in for a better look. The small bird rotates its head towards the new onlookers without body movement in that manner which all owls are capable of — a motion often mimicked in movies by aliens or possessed people but never as gracefully executed. It views us with disregard, perhaps even some contempt as if to confirm who has the upper hand and rules the forest.

This is the Northern Pygmy-owl, one of the smallest owls in North America, standing on average 6.5” tall and wing span 15”. It is diurnal and feeds primarily on songbirds in coniferous forests. A very aggressive hunter, it will search for prey in tree cavities as well as snatch birds in flight or on the ground. In case its hunting prowess were not enough its “false eyes” feather pattern on the nape keeps all prey edgy and on alert as well as deflect its enemies.

I slowly back away for several yards, then sprint back to the truck for my camera. A “life list” bird for me, I don’t want to miss this chance to get some photographs. I run back into the forest with my camera hoping the owl would still be perched. I stop short of my original position to relocate the bird. It had not flown and I snap several close-ups, grateful and amazed at my luck.

Zoomed in I notice its feather pattern more so — in profile I see tiny feathers protruding between the eyes and beak. Its rusty dark brown plumage resembles the bark color of incents cedar. But it’s the false eyes that really capture me. Unlike the wide and round real ones, these black and white feathered patterns are narrowed and angry. Both pairs seem to be constantly searching, watching, scanning; this pint-size predator transfixes me.

It is these encounters that draw me to this important biological work season after season — there is magic, inspiration and rewards beyond words.

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