YOUNG GEOLOGISTS Chapter 3: Science and the Bear

 

I had mentioned earlier that the Idaho Fish and Game had a camp in our area during that summer. They also had a helicopter and our two groups became friends throughout the summer. The Geologist group worked 6 days and alway had Sundays off. The Fish and Wildlife group had more sporadic days off based on what was going on for them out in the field. One of their main projects was catching and tagging black bears to better understand how big their territory was. This particular weekend the guys were working because they had set up live traps and needed to keep checking on them in case a bear had been caught. It would have been a bummer for the bear to be confined in a trap while the Fish and Wildlife guys were enjoying a few days off.

So it was a Sunday, they were working, they had an extra seat and invited me to go along to check on a live trap they had set up. I packed a small backpack with some extra clothes and a snack and met them at the helicopter at the appointed time, which was earlier than I really wanted to get up on my only day off, but the scientists were cute.

We flew up and about 20 minutes or so away from our camp into the wilderness. I remember circling over a high meadow surrounded by a thick forest.  One of the guys, Cliff,  pointed out an unnatural dirt feature up against the side of a hill. It looked like they had built a homemade cave out of sticks and mud. The pilot landed the helicopter about 100 feet from the fake cave.

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We all got out, took off our flight suits and stretched. I checked out the lay of the land. As I said we were in a meadow with knee-high grasses and flowers. We were surrounded by steep hills and tall evergreen trees. As I was gaining my bearings, one of the Fish and Game guys, Jeff, yelled from the other side of the meadow, “We got one!”

Cliff and I ran over to the home-made cave we had seen from the air. George, the pilot, sauntered over after us. The cave looked like a mound of mud and sticks with wood supports inside a deep hole that went straight back. The ‘cave’ was about 5 feet tall and looked to be about 10 feet deep with a gate that was blocking the doorway. It was dark in there except for the eyes of a big animal that was pacing back and forth and grunting. One of the guys got out a flashlight and shined it in on a very black bear who was definitely agitated that he/she was stuck in this cave against his will.

The scientists described to me how they put ‘bait’ (a dead fish) inside this hole that the bear, with it’s keen sense of smell would follow. The bait was attached to some kind of rope that was attached to a mechanism that when the bear took the bait, the mechanism released the trap door over the doorway trapping the bear. Poor guy.

The next step, they told me, was to put the bear to sleep so that they could check some things on the bear for their study. I don’t remember what it was exactly that they attached to a long pole but it looked something like a hypodermic needle. Cliff reached the pole way in through the gate, backing the poor bear way to the back and was able to put the needle into him in the appropriate place.

We waited for about 15 minutes while we watched the bear calm down and then get drowsier and drowsier until he fell asleep. One of the guys checked this out by reaching the empty pole way in and poked the sleeping bear, just to make sure. Feeling like he/she was deeply sleeping, the gate was lifted, two of the guys went in and dragged the maybe 150 lb bear out into the open.

The scientists worked fast because they said the sedative only worked for about 45 minutes and we wanted to be well out of there by the time the bear woke up.

About then, the pilot yelled out, “Hey. Hurry up. There is some weather coming in.”

I don’t remember all of the things they did to the bear other than measure foot and ear size, put a tag on his ear and then opened his mouth and extracted a tooth (to determine his age). Can you imagine waking up to find that one of your teeth were missing? And how much that would hurt? No wonder they wanted to be out of there fast. Poor bear.

About then the wind picked up and the pilot yelled out that we needed to get moving.

Jeff and Cliff took a bunch of photographs of the bear and then wanted to take the time to set up a photograph. Of me. With the bear on my lap. Which I have treasured my whole life since then. That was very nice of them. But taking that time may have cost us.img044

We had been so focused on working with the bear that we had not taken heed of the pilot’s warnings and stood up to feel the wind, and the temperature dropping. Out of the west, out of nowhere, came a thick fog just as we got to the helicopter.

George said, “We ain’t going anywhere until this fog lifts. Better put on your extra clothes.”

I put on all the clothes I had brought with me; a sweater and a hat, plus the flight suits because it had gotten cold! Out of nowhere. It was a beautiful, warm July day without a cloud in the sky when we left that morning.

We were all shivering and Jeff said, “Let’s gather up some wood and start a fire to stay warm. It’ll also keep that bear away once he wakes up.” We were all acutely aware that there was a sleeping bear not very far from where we were, and was going to start waking up at any second, probably pissed.

Jeff, Cliff and I ran out to gather some wood, while George hopped into the helicopter. Jeff hauled over some huge dead wood because this fire wasn’t going to be a little campfire. These guys were talking bonfire. A big one. They made sure to pile it all up at least 50 ft from the chopper. It would be a bummer to burn that up. Cliff brought over a bunch of kindling to put under the big pieces and started to fumble through his pack.

“What are you looking for? I asked.

“Matches.” He said. “Do we have any paper to get this thing going?”

“Don’t even bother looking,” George hollered from the helicopter with glee, “Watch this.”

He hopped out of the chopper with a clear hose and a big clear plastic bag. He walked around to remove the fuel cap then stuck the hose right in. He started to suck on the hose to create some suction,  so that the jet fuel started to come right up to his mouth. He stopped sucking just in time and let the fuel squirt right into that plastic bag.

I’ll never forget how blue that stuff was. Like water dyed with blue food coloring. It stood out in the soupy, gray fog that surrounded us now. My clothes and skin were wet from the moisture and it wasn’t raining. We could only see the shapes of the trees and land features. No details. We could barely see the bear. I kept looking over and thought I saw some movement. My hear rate went up a bit.

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George carefully carried the gallon bag of bright blue fluid over to the huge pile of sticks and logs. He carried it with two hands well away from his body, walking slowly so as not to spill it. Then he carefully poured the flammable liquid over as much of the wood as possible until the bag was empty.

“OK. Who has a match?” He smiled.

Cliff handed George a match and his match holder that had a flint on it.

“Stand back everyone”,George shouted as he lit the match. He was clearly relishing his role and what he was about to do.

We all moved about 20 feet away from the pile. From about 6 feet away, George lit the match, leaned forward and tossed it into the pile.

Whoosh. The fire roared to a start with flames shooting about 20 feet into the air. For a second the flames seemed to be blue, like the jet fuel and then settle into a nice hot orange.

“Boy Scout starter fluid! Always be prepared!” cried George.

We got as close as we could to the roaring fire because we were all cold. As much time as we had all spent out in the wilderness noone was prepared for this course of events. It was the type of day where the side of you facing the fire warmed up and the other side of you got cold, so we were all rotating. When we were facing away from the fire we could see the bear starting to move as he woke up.

“The bear’s waking up! What are we going to do?” I asked anxiously.

“Be calm”, said Jeff. “We’ll stay by the fire. If he does come towards us we’ll all make ourselves look big and do a lot of shouting.

There was some reason we couldn’t get in the helicopter but after all these years I can’t remember what it was. I do remember that there was really no escaping as we were perched on top of a knoll in a little meadow. There was a steep wall behind us and we were surrounded by pretty steep drop offs. The bear definitely had the upper hand here.

We could see the bear starting to lift his head and open his eyes and try to get to it’s feet. He appeared very groggy. Cliff threw some more logs on the fire to keep it going.

“How far do you have to see before you can fly the chopper?”

” Well, usually it’s a mile…. but I’ve done it in less. In Vietnam. And look around you. A miracle might be happening. ”

Sure enough it was getting brighter out and the visibility was getting better. This might just end like a Hollywood movie, with a happy ending!

George all of a sudden yelled, ” I’m gonna go start up the chopper. I think we can make it out of here!”

Jeff yelled, “George and Deb. Get to the chopper. Cliff, help me put this fire out as much as we can. We don’t want to start a forest fire on top of it all. Leave your water bottles here” They were conditioned to be good stewards of the wilderness even while facing a groggy and mad bear. My heroes.

So while George buckled into the pilot’s seat and I into a passenger seat in the back, I watched the other two knocking down the fire with other sticks and then shoveling dirt onto the coals with a shovel they had procured out of Cliff’s backpack. Jeff was pouring all the water from the canteens on the fire too. They did a pretty good job of it as George fired up the engine.

When helicopters start up, they pierce the quiet of the forest with a startlingly loud and un-natural sound. I was feeling even worse for that bear as he was standing up by now and staggering around under the effects of the drugs, slowly moving his head back and forth as if to clear his head. The sound of the helicopter could have only added to his confusion. All in the interest of science.

Jeff and Cliff had extinguished the fire enough to be satisfied and sprinted the 50 feet to the helicopter while bent at the hips, their backs parallel to the ground with their packs fastened to the front of their bodies for safety. They quickly leapt into the helicopter, Jeff in the front and Cliff in the back next to me. George waited for the them to quickly get their helmets and seatbelts on and took off immediately into the thinning fog.

We looked down on the bear as he was making his way towards the remnants of our fire.  Staggering, but less so. We truly made it out with little time to spare. I’ve thought about that bear over the years and wonder how often he told the story of eating a delicious stinky fish then being surprised at not being able to get out of that cozy cave, hearing a giant and noisy bird land in his meadow and spit out four funny looking animals. Falling asleep in the middle of the day, then waking up feeling like he did after a long hibernation except that his mouth hurt like crazy and there was an annoying thing stuck to his ear. Then through his haze, seeing four animals with bright orange skin standing around a fire. Had there been lightening while he was asleep? Then the bird made a huge noise as it’s wings started flapping as it ate all the orange animals and flew off. That story would make a good children’s book!Y

YOUNG GEOLOGISTS Chapter 2: Our Special Lake

 

We flew into the wilderness to do our work via a helicopter. We would be in teams of 2 or 3 geologists. We would plan our routes and where we wanted to map and sample, leave early on one morning, be out for 3 days at a time (backpacking) then get picked up usually on the third afternoon at a pre-appointed place. We also carried line-of-site radios so we could talk to the helicopter if necessary.

Our pilot was a Viet Nam vet. He had flown many missions just a few years previous but he never talked about it. In fact PTSD was not a named thing yet, but in retrospect, I’m sure that he had it. He kept to himself in his cabin when he was not flying, he was very quiet but spoke with biting sarcasm when he spoke, though he sometimes had a twinkle in his eyes and other times could not meet your gaze.

He was a good pilot, and we trusted him.

Mostly, we worked together with the same partner each week, but sometimes we would change it up and go out with different groups. Several times a summer it ended up that my group was all women. That was great because when it was just the ‘girls’ we liked to do geology semi-naked. We’d wear our hand lenses around our necks on a lanyard, shorts with a belt with our Brunton compass (a measuring device) and notebook around our waist, a hat for sun protection, socks and our heavy-duty hiking boots. A backpack on our backs completed the outfit. I’m sure we were a sight but we were in a wilderness area that would be several days walk for any hiker and we were fairly certain that we no one would be close enough to see us.

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We would do this quite often and word got out among all the other geologists at camp that we had all-over tans.

On one occasion four of us women were up in the mountains hiking around on the white granite looking at rocks. We had finished up our three days of field work high in the mountains and had gotten to the appointed pickup spot earlier than expected.

“We’ve worked hard. Let’s quit a bit early and enjoy this beautiful lake,” suggested our team leader Maggie.

“Oh, great idea! This will feel so good,” gasped Judy as she shrugged her huge pack off of her back into a heap on the white rock.

Maggie, Judy, Mary Beth and I quickly took off our our backpacks and our clothes in almost one movement. Time off in the middle of the afternoon was rare. We wanted to make sure we had time to sunbathe and swim before our pickup in about an hour.

We had picked a flat place on the map three days earlier where it would be easy for a helicopter to land. The landing zone was on white granite rock right next to a beautiful blue high mountain lake. We knew there would be no trees there to catch the blades and it would be safe. What usually happened was that we would start to hear the helicopter when it was several miles away and then the pilot would give us a call over the radio. We’d have to time to get ‘decent’ before he got very close.

There were lakes all over the wilderness area and most of them were un-named on the map. So based on memorable events at each lake we named them ourselves. There was ‘Broken Toe Lake’ from a mishap with a rock late at night. There was ‘Ripped Shorts’ Lake from snagging some already ripped shorts on a rock and ripping one leg off. There was W3 (W cubed) Lake meaning ‘Wild Wilderness Women’ named by a bunch of 20 something year old female geologists who worked very hard in the field, but had a good time doing it.

This un-named lake where we shed our clothes on this summer afternoon was very deep and there were several places where we could dive or jump off an elevated rock into the icy cold lake. The icy water took our breath away but felt great on this very hot July day. It was easy to get too hot lying in the sun so each of us was popping up every few minutes to cool off with a dive. It was wondrous! Forest fire season had not begun yet in Idaho so the sky was cloudless and clear and breathless.

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Geologically speaking this lake was called a ‘Tarn” which is a lake that is situated in the middle of a “cirque”. A cirque is an amphitheater-like feature that has been carved out by a glacier thousands of years before. There is usually water coming into the lake from snowmelt and then water leaving the lake via a creek. In this case the creek was water falling off a steep cliff into a canyon below. It was a very dramatic setting.

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“Oh my god, this water feels so good on my tired feet,” I called from the water.

“I’m going to smell a whole lot better after this swim,” shouted out Beth.

So we were lying there, or swimming intermittently, baking in the sun while chatting and dozing and enjoying the beautiful afternoon.

“WHOP, WHOP, WHOP, WHOP”, completely broke the silence and our zen, making all 4 of us jump in complete surprise and momentary confusion. The blades of our helicopter rose slowing into view.

Our helicopter and the pilot ascended slowly at the outlet of the lake. At the same time, the radio crackled to life with the voice of our pilot saying in a sing song voice, “I see you!!!” Then laughter.

He had flown up the base of the canyon (‘snuck ‘would be a better word) below us so we wouldn’t hear or see him. When he was below the lake he had brought the helicopter up vertically several hundred feet until he was at eye level. It was bad enough that we were so startled, but the wind from the blades also sent our clothes flying all over the place and he had quite a show watching four naked women chasing their clothes and frantically putting them on. He had planned it all perfectly and was getting a huge kick out of it.

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With a mix of embarrassment and laughter we loaded our backpacks onto the chopper, put on the one piece flame retardant jumpsuits and helmets and got in to fly back to our base camp. Of course the story got out to all of our co-workers.

And the next day the four of us also discovered that we were sunburned in some new places so forever after that the lake was called “Burnt Tit Lake.”

Skiing: The Touchstone of My Life

My family moved every two to three years while I was a kid. My Dad was an engineer for General Mills and in those days in order to be promoted, a guy working in a corporation such as this would have to agree to move to a new location. It may still be that way, I don’t know. Because we moved so much people ask if I was an “army brat” and I say “no, I was a corporate brat.” I was born in Maryland, moved to Iowa, Minnesota (corporate offices), Texas, Missouri, Buffalo NY, back to Minnesota, and then to Massachusetts where I finally graduated from high school.

When my youngest brother was 4 and I was 8 my Dad decided it was time for us to learn to ski and my parents brought us to a free ski clinic at Glenwood Acres outside of Buffalo, NY. It was a good idea to learn to ski in western New York  because in those days it snowed a lot. The clinic was sponsored by the Buffalo newspaper and amazingly a picture of my first moments on skis was published. The photo captured my enthusiasm which has never waned.

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My whole family was hooked after that first lesson and my brothers and I joined a ski school program that went on throughout the whole winter. We would carpool with neighborhood kids up to the ski area after school to ski two evenings a week under the lights. The parents would hand us over to our instructors and off we went to the freedom of skiing in the night air. There was music played over loudspeakers on at least one run and to this day whenever I hear “Love is Blue” it takes me back to skiing in the night. I can feel the cold on my cheeks and visualize making turns on the lighted slopes under dark skies. I feel joy in my heart.

My Dad bought us all our own ski equipment right about then when he knew we were hooked. He had skied as a young man and loved it and was so happy his kids loved it too. My first pair of skis (Fishers) cost $17.50 complete with screw in edges and long leather leashes. They were black. I had to get new skis when some guy ran into me and I wiped out. I was OK but my wooden skis were not.  Broken. My next pair were blue Volkls that cost $30. This dates me for sure.

My first boots were laced up like sneakers. We knew we were getting better when we graduated to boots that had two layers of lacing. There was an inner boot that laced up and then laces on the outside. It was quite an operation to get those laced up tight enough to stay that way and my Dad embraced it with gusto. He would lace them up tight for us in the mornings and then again at lunchtime. I remember him using his whole body to get them cinched up and it was a ritual that he clearly enjoyed.

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I broke my leg my second winter skiing. My Dad had a red Volkswagen Beetle in those days with a ski rack on the back. My two brothers and I and ski gear could fit inside it because we were all so small. I mention this because to get me home with a splinted leg meant one of my brothers had to ride home in the little spot behind the seat. On this particular day I was wearing my new ski sweater that my Mom had knit for me. To get to the top of many ski runs in those days you would ride a ‘rope tow’.`

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Simply put, you held onto a big fat rope that pulled you up the hill. At the top the rope then went through a pulley and returned back down the hill. You had to stand in line, step up to the rope when it was your turn, grab the rope with your special anti-friction mittens, hold on with one hand in front of you and one behind to act as kind of an anchor. After being pulled to the top, you had to let go and step out of the way.  I went through this process on this day but when I got to the top my new sweater became entangled and stuck on the rope so that I was unable to get off of it. The rope carried me right through the emergency stop gate which did not stop the lift immediately. I kept going far enough that I ran into a large metal pole with my leg, sending a shock of pain from the top of my boot up my body. When the rope finally stopped, the lift operator came running over to disentangle me and lift me to standing. Sadly my leg hurt too much for me to stand for very long. The ski patrol was sent for and I had my first (and last) toboggan ride down the hill to the ski patrol shed.

I loved to ski so much that even though my season was over for that year it didn’t stop me for the next. Skiing became the thing that my brothers, our Dad and I did every winter, on weekends or in the evening wherever we lived. In fact, skiing became the one constant in a life that was otherwise always changing with all of our moving. It became a touchstone in my life…. the feeling of putting all my warm ski clothes on, putting on those stiff boots and clicking them into my skis. And then the feel of cold air on my skin and the freedom of flying down the mountain (or hill in most cases). Skiing took all my cares away when I was growing up, and that has continued into the present.

My mother had grown up as the daughter of an Episcopalian minister. So we grew up going to church. But during ski season if we had to go to church on Sunday that meant one less day of skiing. My Mom finally broke down after a lot of unending lobbying on my brothers’ and my part and allowed us to go to church service on top of the ski run, in our skis. She agreed that we were closer to God there anyway.

We moved to Minnesota outside of Minneapolis when I was in 6th grade. Back then there were traveling ski schools meaning someone (in this case a local ski shop) had their own group of instructors who travelled to many different ski areas on weekends with the same kids. On Friday nights my oldest brother and I would get all our ski gear and ski clothes together and lay it all out for the morning. Usually my Dad would drop us off at a bus stop in the dark on Saturday morning. We would return in the dark that night exhausted and so happy. We would ski all over Minnesota and into Wisconsin. I don’t know if these places still exist but I remember names like Afton Alps, Snowcrest, Trollhaugen. Warms my heart to think of them. But I can tell you that skiing in Minnesota in those days was not warm. Frigid comes to mind. Being a kid I hardly noticed the cold unless I dropped a mitten off a ski lift, or got pushed into a snowbank or off the T-bar by a ‘friend’ or went too fast down a hill trying to outrun the ski patrol. Oh my we had fun. The bus rides were almost as fun as the skiing as we became fast friends with the other kids in the ski school. We’d talk and laugh. We’d keep in touch and get together over the summer. When my second brother was old enough he came along too and we started going on both Saturday and Sunday. As a kid I never thought about it but that meant my parents had weekends to themselves. Wonder what they did? I never asked.

My oldest brother and I got into ski racing at some point and got to go practice a night or two a week at a local area with our coach who also traveled with us on weekends. We started going to ski races all over the midwest competing in slalom and giant slalom and downhill races. The song of the time that was playing on the radio as we drove to races early in the morning was ‘Bye Bye Miss American Pie.” We learned every word and sang along. Every time I hear that song I think back to the joy of being with friends and family as we drove in the dark to a ski race. And then I remember the fun atmosphere of the colorful flags on the race course and all the people watching and the exhilaration of going fast through the course to the finish line. I started to compete very well and win races. And then we moved to Massachusetts. We told our parents they were ruining our lives by moving us there.

Happily, my new high school had a ski team. After Fall sports were over our team began ‘dryland’ training with lots of running outside (even in snow) and quickness and strength training in the gymnasium. Around December we would train at a local hill and went to races about once a week and on weekends. We had a good enough team that we won the league championship. The kids on that team were some of my best friends at the school.

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Yes, I skied in jeans.

I started ski racing when I was about 12 and kept racing even in college. I raced through my Sophomore year at St. Lawrence University in New York. I always say it was fortunate that between my Sophomore and Junior year I injured my ankle, had to have surgery and that effectively ended my competition days. Ski racing had been so all encompassing that I had not fully given appropriate attention to my studies. Because I was injured I was able to focus and get a degree in Geology.

And ultimately, that degree got me to Colorado working for the United States Geological Survey. I did my best to stick with my ‘real’ job and be an adult. But eventually the call of snow, and the mountains, and skiing lured me back in and sent me on a lifelong adventure as a ski instructor.

 

 

 

 

 

YOUNG GEOLOGISTS Chapter 1: A Survey

 

My life would have turned out a lot differently if my college sophomore roommate hadn’t had a crush on a guy. She dragged me to a talk in the Geology Department on a Thursday night because she knew he would be going. I had never heard of geology and had too much homework to go out on a weeknight, but Cathy was very insistent so I went along.

Up until that time, I had been taking courses aimlessly, trying to figure out what I was interested in. Definitely not Government, or Psychology or Sociology and I’d gotten a C in Environmental Studies which was not a good way to start out in a potential field of interest. Then I went to this talk.

The show consisted of slides of a group of geology students doing ‘field work’. They were backpacking in the mountains, and hiking in the desert looking at rocks and landforms, studying the earth. To this day, I remember one of the slides in the show. It was a group of young people with big packs on their backs walking single file along a ridge of sand in a desert. I couldn’t believe that people did that kind of thing for study and for a living. I walked out that evening a Geology major. I had no idea what that entailed, but it didn’t matter. Turns out, my major lasted longer than my roommate’s relationship with the guy who brought us there.

That field of study got me from the East to out West, which had been my goal ever since my family spent 3 weeks in the Tetons when I was 15. Right out of school I landed a job with the US Geological Survey in Lakewood, CO; moved to Colorado about a week after graduation and never looked back. The project I was hired for was doing a ‘Mineral Resource Appraisal’ of a wilderness area in Idaho and Montana. There were probably 20 geologists working on the project, most of them under 30 yrs old. And of all things, the project chief was a woman and a large number of the geologists and assistants were also women. This was in 1979 and this was very unheard of and I walked right into it. It seemed perfectly natural to me. And very comfortable.

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This first summer we lived in some cabins right at the confluence of two rivers where together they became a bigger river. It was a vacation resort with a few multi bedroom buildings and a number of small log cabins smattered about. I remember the buildings being in kind of a u-shaped configuration with about 10 small camper trailers parked in the middle of the U. The U.S. and a state government were clearly paying the bills for this resort as the camper trailers also housed workers and scientists from a state Fish and Game Department. Our helicopter and the Fish and Game helicopters were parked at the top of the U.

A mineral resource appraisal project consisted of gaining as clear a picture as possible of the economic resources in the ground of an area. Technically, an area that is designated wilderness precludes mining or any kind of extraction of mineral. That’s why it is so difficult to get a piece of land designated wilderness now because people worry about what if gold is found and they can’t get to it and take it out? In the case of our project we were surveying for minerals after it was already a wilderness area.

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This summer was one of the four summers it took to walk all over the 1.3 million acres of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Doing a thorough survey consisted of many phases. One was taking stream sediment samples of a certain number of streams to get an accurate sampling of the erosion from all the surrounding rocks. You can tell a lot about the geology of the mountains by bringing the sand back to a lab in Denver and analyzing the makeup. We went into the wilderness with rolled up cotton bags and walked out with the same bags filled with wet sand… each weighing 5 lbs. The limiting factor of how many samples could be taken was how many each person could carry out. These streams were always in dense forest with mostly no trails, so a lot of bushwhacking was required.

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Another phase of this study was called mapping. In those days there was no GPS so we were using the old-fashioned technique of maps and compass to pinpoint exactly where we were and to plot our course. We would get to a spot with a good ‘outcrop’ of rock (rock that we could put our hands on) mark it on the map, take measurements (you can tell all kinds of things by measuring the direction of big cracks in the rock and if minerals are lined up in a certain pattern/direction). We would look at the rocks with our hand lenses (magnifying glass) to describe what kind of minerals we saw in the rock and than would describe it all in our little geology notebooks. Then we would bash off a fist size piece of rock with our hammer, label it, make a note of the label in our book, bag it and put it in our backpacks. Each stop took quite a while and the days were long but we were in some very beautiful country.

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The Bitterroot Mountains are for the most part made up of variations of beautiful white granite. It is all part of  (I love this) the Idaho Batholith which is a geologic term. And fun to say.

So that is what brought us to Idaho/Montana but the real stories are what happens when you put a group of young male and female scientists together for several summers and fly around in helicopters and backpack around in beautiful and rugged country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outward Bound 1974: A Life Changing Event. Written by my 18 year old self

We cleaned out our garage recently and I came across a 20 page, handwritten story I had written in the Fall of 1974 for my Senior Creative Writing class. This experience had such a profound effect on how my life has unfolded that I thought I’d share it, as written, with minimal editing.

 

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Getting off the plane in Duluth, Minnesota after six hours of flying, I could immediately pick out everyone else who was there for Outward Bound. They all had on brand new work boots, work pants, T-shirts and all were lugging around some sort of stuffed duffle bag; just like what I was wearing or carrying.

I found my suitcase and fought my way through the tiny airport lobby, tripping over duffel bags and boots, and out onto the front lawn. There were about sixty kids, male and female, reclining on top of and beside their suitcases which were spread out all over the grass. A lot of them were trying to get some enjoyment out of what would be their last cigarette for 24 days. Tobacco, alcohol and drugs were strictly forbidden here. It was sort of comical, some were passing a cigarette around among five people like a joint. They would take a couple of puffs and let the smoke out slowly with a look of heaven in their eyes. Others drank deeply from their canteens, which I’m sure weren’t filled with water.

Looking around, I could see groups forming already. There were gatherings around the kids who talked loud, and around the ones with cigarettes and canteens. Others like me, just sat back and took it all in, thinking of my last days at home and wondering what the next 24 days would bring, and hoping I would survive.

As soon as the leaders were positive everyone was there we were all herded onto buses for another two hours of traveling to get somewhere north of Ely, Minnesota where we would be divided into groups and dropped off. It was about 85 degrees outside and the bus was so stuffy, it was hard to breath. Everyone was going through the usual talk with total strangers; name, age, home, etc. I found out I was about the farthest from home in Massachusetts.

We stopped finally at a picnic ground to get into our groups. My group of all young women was named ‘Kitchigami’, which is the Indian name for Lake Superior meaning “Friend to All”. I liked it. We were given a welcome speech by the director, Derek Pritchard. I didn’t pay much attention because I was too busy fighting off mosquitoes.

I met one of my instructors and my six ‘brigade’ mates who would be my constant companions for a month. Lynn, the instructor was built like a bull dog. Her legs were as muscular as a man’s and as hairy. Her voice was deep and her hair was sun-bleached blond, and her skin very tan. She gave me the first impression of a grown up tomboy. She was about 22 years old. There wasn’t much time to talk to anyone else, because as soon as we had put all our valuables in an envelope and labeled our suitcases, we we piled on the bus again to get to our dropoff point somewhere farther into the wilderness.

After what seemed like hours we were finally dropped off. The bus left and we waved good by to civilization. Piled in front of us were four canoes, five packs and Margie, the other instructor. In contrast to Lynn, Margie was as skinny as a stick and had no body fat at all. Her hair was frizzy blond, almost an afro, and her eyes were the most beautiful blue I had ever seen.

Before we could even talk to anyone, they were showing us the proper way to get a 90 lb. canoe on our shoulders so we could carry it; portaging they called it. We couldn’t believe they actually wanted a person to carry the thing. We were also shown how to carry the big, green, canvas packs that we filled with all our food, clothes and all other supplies and belongings.

Then Lynn said, “O.K. we have a ways to go before we get to our campsite, so decide who’s going to carry a canoe and who’s going to carry a pack.”

We all looked at her like she was crazy. We hadn’t even had time to rest from our long journeys and already we were working. Besides, who had ever heard of carrying a canoe? I always thought you were supposed to paddle it. But since there was no water in sight, the next best thing must be to carry it.

With a lot of help from a girl named Jane we got the canoe up on my shoulders. I could tell right away that I wasn’t going to like this situation. The canoe kept teetering forward and backward, and I went forward and backward trying to keep the damn thing on my shoulders. It was probably funny to any observer, Jane was laughing but I wasn’t.

I started walking, or rather I started staggering. After about two minutes I thought I was dying. The sweat was going out of every pore in my body and the mosquitoes who had joined me underneath the canoe were biting wherever they landed. It felt like all my vertebrae were crunching together from the weight of the canoe. I wanted so badly to stop and put the canoe down but I didn’t know how to get it back up, so I struggled onward.

I hear footsteps behind me and Lynn came jogging by me with a canoe on her shoulders. I almost dropped mine when I saw this. “Keep it up,” she yelled, “only a little ways to go.” She wasn’t even panting. I staggered on for what I was sure was 10 miles and came upon a stream twenty feet wide.

“What am I supposed to do now?” I asked a girl who was standing there with a pack.

“Lynn walked right through.”

“I’ll just try hopping from rock to rock.” I said, wondering how I was going to manage that while carrying a canoe.

“Good luck. I hope you don’t fall in.” said the girl. She was very encouraging.

“Well, maybe there’s a better way.”

“I think you’d better walk through,” she advised.

“What? And get my feet wet?” I surveyed the situation and decided that would be the fastest and safest way. I stepped into the water with my right foot. The water was cold, but actually sort of refreshing after the long day, which was getting longer with each step. I almost fell in, but made it to the other side and was safe. The campsite stood in front of me, and after yelling, got some help in removing the burden from my shoulders. I felt a hundred pounds lighter. I was.

When everyone finally arrived we were immediately assigned duties for fixing up the camp. We weren’t even given time to rest after our first traumatic experience. Another girl, Cathy, and I were told to set up the tents. They didn’t even tell us how to do it. Lynn just handed us two rolled up tents and told us to hurry because it looked like rain.

While we were fumbling around, trying to figure out which pole went where, which part of the tent was up and which was down, it started to rain. We put on the rain gear Margie and Lynn gave us. It then started to rain like I’d never seen it rain before. It came down literally in sheets and the raindrops hit with such force, it hurt. It thundered louder than I’d ever heard before and the lightening lit up the sky.

“Welcome to Outward Bound,” it said, “you’re in for quite a month.”

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2

Even though I had been dead tired I still had trouble getting to sleep that first night. I wasn’t too used to sleeping on the ground, especially on an angle with a root sticking in my back. But I did sleep and I got up the next morning very stiff and sore. My neck hurt like hell and I found I had all the symptoms of ‘portage neck’, caused by the tendency of the canoe to rest on that bone at the base of the neck when portaging. Everyone else who had carried a canoe were suffering from the same ailments.

This was going to be a day of “learning” according to Lynn and Margie. We started out by learning how to ‘crash’. Meaning, when there is no trail to portage your canoes or hike, you make your own trail. It is called ‘crashing’ because that is what you do, crash through whatever is in front of you. I ended up with the canoe again, and oh my neck. We went crashing through trees and bushes that were very close together and anything else that happened to be straight ahead. The forest was very thick with lots of underbrush. Someone carrying a pack would lead someone with a canoe. You  really had to have trust in the person who was leading, because being under a canoe made it pretty hard to see where you were going. I ended up stepping in holes and getting the canoe wedged between two trees on my way down. I wiped out once and almost did a few more times, slipping on logs and wet rocks. It took great skill, which we didn’t have, to make it through. I could hear thuds and screams ahead and behind me as another canoe hit the ground. The only good thing was that by concentrating so hard on the placement of your feet, you didn’t think about the shoulders and neck, and they didn’t hurt so much any more.

Slowly we broke our own trail to the lake. At the end of our trail we just wanted to chuck the canoes and lie down, but Lynn and Margie told us this wasn’t good for the canoes and they taught us the proper procedure for removing the canoe from our shoulders. The canoe carrier had to walk straight into the water, no matter how deep, so that when it was flipped over, the bottom of the canoe wouldn’t scrape the shore. The pack carrier had to walk in too to help remove the canoe and to get the pack into it. It was at about this time that I realized my feet were going to be wet quite a bit in the future. I don’t know how I even dreamed that with all the lakes in Minnesota I was going to somehow manage to keep my feet dry.

We paddled a little ways down the edge of the lake to a campsite with a fire grate. We stopped here to learn some of the basics of survival. Lynn really got into telling us how to treat cuts and burns and hypothermia, because she was a pre-med major.

It was here that we had our first introduction to what they called “food”. I was unlucky enough to be appointed chef for this meal and got a reputation immediately for being a bad cook. I tried making scrambled eggs out of a packet of dried eggs, which was a complete disaster. They looked, tasted and had the consistency of rubber. They even bounced. I was officially removed from the ranks of cooks and told to stick to putting up tents. Personally, I think they would have tasted like tires for anyone. We bounced the leftover eggs into a hole dug for garbage and sat around and talked to each other for the first time.

The girl I hit it off with right away was Jane. She was from Ann Arbor, Michigan. She didn’t care at all what others thought of her and she laughed at everything. This trait of hers eventually drove me crazy, but I liked it at the time.

Nancy was from Dubuque, Iowa. Her hair was short, curly and blond. My first impression of her was that she was, well….blond. She said and did really stupid things, because she didn’t know how to act around strangers, I found out later. But by the end of the month she was one of the nicest persons that I had ever met.

Cathy was short, fat and Jewish (which didn’t mean anything to me except she kept telling us). He father owned some grocery store chain in Illinois and sent her to a private school in New Jersey. She had traveled all over the world and she got anything she wanted. I think her parents had run out of summer camps and countries to send her to so they sent her to O.B. To her, O.B. was just another trip. Surprisingly enough, she didn’t act spoiled and she did her fair share of the work. She had her head on straight.

Andrea was overweight and wore glasses. Her family had sent her to O.B. as a graduation present. You could tell her mother’s opinions played a large role in her life. Her rhinestone glasses were ones which only an old fashioned mother could pick out and her mother expected the worst, from the clothes Andrea wore. She complained all the time and she was one person I never came to like.

Kris was from somewhere in southern Minnesota. She was very feminine and very religious. She always portaged in her bikini.

The last member of our group was Anne. She was very large boned, and clumsy. She expected everyone to help her because she was deaf in one ear. It sounded like her mother would never let her out of her sight. I’ll never figure out how she let Anne go to O.B. Anne used her hearing problem to her advantage, pretending not to hear something she didn’t want to or acting like she didn’t understand so she’d get out of work. We caught on pretty fast. After it was all over I had a lot of respect for Anne, to come away from such a protected life and go through everything she went through. When we made her do something, she would always do her best to please. She grew up a lot during our course.

Our two instructors were rather unique too. Lynn was from Rochester, Minnesota. She had just graduated from St. Olaf’s College where she had majored in pre-med and wanted to go on to be a doctor. She had a very competitive attitude because all her life she had been in competitive sports, mainly swimming. Right now she was into running and was planning on running the Boston Marathon. She expected no less than the best from everyone. Her whole life was Outward Bound and she put everything into it.

Margie was the assistant instructor for us as her summer job. She wasn’t as serious as Lynn. She was an English teach at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts. She had taught map and compass reading in the state forest behind my house (I live in Massachusetts) so it was a small world. She was married to a really nice looking boy’s instructor. Margie cracked me up because she was always correcting our English.

And I had come to Outward Bound all the way from Massachusetts on a scholarship from General Mills, my Dad’s employer. I was 17 and in between my Junior and Senior year of high school. I was athletic and strong, though shy and tended to always do my best.

Lynn told us we had talked enough for the day and to get into our bathing suits for preliminary swim tests. We had to swim out about 50 yds and back to prove we could stay above water. Then we learned how to rescue swamped canoes. We had great fun tipping over the canoes and rescuing them.

When we changed back we were each given a map of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) and the Quetico National Park. It was called the Boundary Waters because we were right on the boundary between the U.S. and Canada. We were also given three compasses to share among us. We were shown how to set bearings with the map. We all assumed that now we wouldn’t get lost. HA!!

At about 1:00 we packed up, got in our canoes and practiced how to paddle a canoe with all the different paddle strokes. We were also shown how to dip the whole paddle straight down into the clear water and let it come back up, lift it to the sky, put your mouth against the handle and drink the water that drained down. That was how we stayed hydrated during the whole trip. We canoed until dark when we set up camp on a tiny little island. There was barely enough room for our three tents and a fire. We ate and went to bed. It was quite a productive day.

3. Swamp and Bog Experience

The third day we all looked at our maps for the plotted course for the day. I mentioned that it didn’t look like we had far to go. There were only a couple of portages and what looked like a stream according to the narrow black line on the map. Margie and Lynn laughed at my remark. I didn’t know why.

A while later I knew why they laughed. We came to a place, where according to the map, a stream should have been. It wasn’t there. We could see the other lake abut a half a mile away. But what separated the two lakes was not a stream, it was a swamp. The weather had been so dry that the stream had dried up. It was now all mud.

Jane and I were in the first canoe so we tried to paddle through. It was impossible, the mud was too thick. We sat there for a while trying to put off the inevitable a little longer. We were going to have to get out into all that mud, and push or pull that canoe through. I couldn’t bear the thought of it and judging from the muttered obscenities and expressions of everyone else, they couldn’t either.

“Jane, I think it’s the only way.”

“Shit,” she replied and started laughing. I didn’t find the situation amusing.

“I will if you will.”

“OK”

“Eeewww. Yuck.”

We stepped into the mud trying to find footing on logs and branches. We sunk in up to our knees.

“Now what?”

“Take the rope on the front and try pulling. I’ll push.”

“OK, on the count of three. 1…2…3…push.”

The canoe went forward a few feet and I went down a few feet. I was up to my waist in mud.”

“1…2…”

“Hey Jane, uh, ya wanna wait a sec please. I’m kinda stuck.”

Of course Jane started laughing. By using the canoe to lean on I pulled myself out of the mud that was sucking me up like quicksand. After several tries we perfected a way of moving the canoe. Jane would walk on the bent over weeds that lined the dried up stream, pulling, while I would hop from log to log pushing. Several times I missed and ended up in the mud past my waist. Jane slipped a few times too. We were getting really frustrated because we were working so hard and getting nowhere. We swore our heads off (because we had never been allowed to swear before and that was really fun) until Jane started laughing again. I joined in because it was the only way to keep from crying.

Kris, Andrea and their canoe were behind us followed by Cathy, Nancy and Anne. Cathy and Nancy were yelling at Anne to help. We looked and saw Anne trying to walk over the weeds around the edge, not helping Cathy and Nancy at all with the canoe. Because they had three people in their canoe, they had two packs while everyone else had one, so their canoe was about 6 inches lower in the mud.

“Anne would you please help us?” Nancy pleaded.

“”I’m afraid I’ll get my hearing aid wet.” Anne whined back.

The canoe wouldn’t move and Cathy and Nancy were getting really upset.

“GODDAMNIT,” followed by the sound of a splat and then crying came from Nancy. She was laying in the mud and was completely covered. She was fuming. Between chokes of crying and spitting mud, she yelled,”Anne, get the hell over here right now and help us move this canoe or I’ll personally stick your head in the mud.”

“But my hearing aid…..”

“I don’t give a damn about your hearing aid right now, I just want to get out of this Goddamned mud.” She yelled it so loud and with such meaning that Anne had no trouble understanding her. She struggled over.

Meanwhile, Andrea and Kris were really struggling with their canoe. Or rather Kris was struggling with their canoe. Andrea wasn’t being much of a help. She was stepping gingerly from log to log, leaning on the canoe for support while Kris was trying to push it. Her shoes were barely dirty while the rest of us had mud up to our waists.

“Will you just get in, you’re gonna have to get dirty one of these days and we’ll get out of here sooner if you do,” Kris kindly suggested.

“But these are my only pants.” Andrea complained.

“I don’t exactly have a large wardrobe either.”

Andrea hopped in. We forged on for about two hours and got only about two thirds of the way through. The lake was still in the distance. Everyone was getting really frustrated and on the verge of tears. Then everyone started laughing all at once at the sheer stupidity of what we were doing. Who would have believed a week ago that we’d be standing out in the middle of the nowhere in mud up to our waists. It was kind of funny if you could get your mind off the mud going down your socks along with the leeches and all the other little creatures that dwell in swamps. Our laughter broke the tension and from there on we told jokes and sang and laughed and until we made it to the lake.

We got to the lake about an hour later. We jumped in, in a vain attempt to get the mud off our bodies. It was a well-deserved bath. And I never said, “that looks easy” again.

 

4.

The following day we hopped into our damp, mud encrusted clothes for a long day of traveling. We had a lot of canoeing and portaging to do this day, so we started out as soon as the sun rose. The portages weren’t that bad. What had seemed like miles the first few days were like nothing today. Our problem was trying to find the right way with our maps and compasses without getting lost. We hadn’t quite gotten the the knack yet for how use this valuable equipment and we ended up going the wrong way a lot of the time. We hadn’t learned to match the contours of the map with the contours of the land and the lakes. There were so many weird shaped lakes in Northern Minnesota that we were confused a lot of the time.

Margie and Lynn were not much of a help, at the same time as being a lot of help. They stayed behind us and would never say a word. They never once told us (with their words) when we made a wrong turn, but we could always tell by their actions. They would stop paddling if we went the wrong way. Margie would pull out her fishing rod and start fishing even thought she had no bait on the hook, while Lynn would lie across her seat to sunbathe. So whenever we weren’t sure where we were going we’d just look back to see what our leaders were doing.

About noon we pulled over to some inviting looking woods to learn about ‘Orienteering’. That is to find your way through the forest to a certain point using only a map and compass. We were going to some tiny lake way back in the woods so we set a compass bearing to this lake. A red bandana was tied to the end of a stick which was sent up ahead with Cathy carrying it up in the air. Kris was watching the compass. She also watched where the bandana was and directed Cathy in the direction the needle on the compass was pointing. When Cathy got almost out of sight, she’d be told to stop and we’d all go running up to where she was standing. They both got tired of their jobs and we switched off. I ended up with the stick for the rest of the time. In this job the stick carrier had to keep going straight no matter what was blocking the way; trees, bushes or water.

After about an hour and a half of this we found the lake. We were very proud of ourselves and we could tell that Margie and Lynn were too. We celebrated by eating granola and dates. We went back to where we had hidden our canoes and paddled off.

We paddled all the rest of the afternoon and were getting fairly tired. We got lost and ended up having to portage 280 rods to the lake we were headed to instead of 10 rods. (portages are measured in rods- 16.5 feet to a rod). We all got sort of mad at this. Jane didn’t even laugh. It was evening. It had been a long day, we were all dead tired and were looking forward to dinner and a nice warm, comfortable sleeping bag.

I was in the canoe with Cathy. She looked really tired. I was too but didn’t want to make her carry the canoe for this extra surprise distance, so I offered to do it. She gladly allowed me this honor.

The mosquitoes were unbelievable at this time of the day so I first had to get prepared for my journey. I put on my long sleeved work shirt and rubbed Cutters bug repellent all over my hands, neck and face. After pulling my hat down over my ears and forehead, I was ready, more or less. We got the canoe up on my shoulders and God did it feel terrible. It felt heavier than usual and I was sure my back was going to break. I felt a bad case of portage neck coming on. The canoe swayed back and forth as it got balanced on my shoulders. I did my best to get psyched for this portage that was almost a mile long.

I went forward with the thought in my head that I wasn’t going to rest once. I was going to make it the whole way without taking that canoe off my back once if it killed me. After a few hundred yards I thought I was going to die first. It felt like my backbone was bending from the weight. With me under the canoe were about 5000 mosquitoes and my Dr. Cutters did not seem to be working. My whole body was being bit, especially my arms and back and I was going crazy. It was pretty difficult to slap your back while balancing a 90 lb. canoe with one hand. My whole body was soaked in sweat. To say the least, I was rather uncomfortable.

I thought that maybe if I swore at them it would help. Maybe I thought they would be offended by my coarse language and leave. No such luck. Those little buggers just kept feasting, my back kept breaking and the sweat was running down into my eyes. I tried singing and thinking of better days as I trudged along. There was the sound of footsteps behind me.

“Hey Deb, what’s happening?” It was Jane.

“Oh nothing. Except that these mosquitoes are driving me crazy.”

“I’ll get them off.” She wiped 5 million mosquitoes off of my back and arms.”

“I’m forever indebted Jane.”

“Forget it. Do you want me to take that canoe for a while?”

“No, I’m gonna take it the whole way.”

“Yer crazy.”

“That’s true.”

“Wanna rest for a while?”

“No, just keep talking, it helps me forget my troubles.”

So Jane and I forged on. We talked a lot and it kept my mind off my sore body. After what seemed like a century and 50 miles,”I see the lake.”

“Thank God!!”

Somehow we made it the last 200 yds. I almost fell into the lake as I staggered in to get rid of the canoe. Jane came in after me to help me to get it off my back. I was totally exhausted but extremely proud of myself. Four days ago I didn’t even know what portaging was and now I had just portaged almost a mile. We rested a while than went back along the trail to help everyone else who needed it. Everyone made it but before we could rest had to paddle over to an island across the lake where we could see Margie and Lynn setting up camp. They had passed us along the trail about an hour before.

We beached the canoes and hurried as fast as our tired bodies would move to set up camp because darkness was upon us. Cathy and I set up the tents, hung up all our wet clothes and rested. We had dinner of some dehydrated crap that actually didn’t last that bad. We were probably just too hungry and tired to notice if it wasn’t any good. We had another first aid session by campfire light. Everyone was ready to climb into their tents and pass out when we hear Lynn yell,”Come down to the beach and see this!” Someone else said,”Oh wow!” I forsook my warm, comfortable sleeping bag for my curiosity.

I fell down to the beach and looked up at the sky. White lights were shooting across the sky, like paint being splashed. A small spot of light would streak across the heavens, blotting out the starts and lighting up the earth. It was other worldly and so beautiful. It was the most fantastic thing I had ever seen. We all just stood on the beach in silence, and awe, staring at the Northern lights. Looking up at the sky, we realized how small and insignificant we really are in this spectacular universe. Could all this just happen or was there really a God behind it all? Even though we were dead tired, we lay on the beach, staring at the sky for a couple of hours.

We talked about these things for a while longer and finally crawled into our sleeping bags. Tomorrow was too close and even miracles like that couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer.

 

5 Map and Compass

We pulled our sore bodies out of the tents early the next morning. I was not looking forward to this day at all. We were going to put our supreme knowledge of the way of the map and compass into use this day. We broke camp, packed everything away and canoed across the lake to find the portage trail. We portaged about 180 rods, which is not the best thing to do right after breakfast, especially since we hadn’t even recovered from the night before yet. At the end of the trail there was no lake. It was a road. We piled our canoes and packs on the side of the road to be picked up.

We filled two little packs with a sleeping bag, first aid kit, rain gear, food and three canteens filled with water. These were our ‘ready packs’ in case of emergency. Lynn handed out topographic maps and three compasses. She showed us a lake we were to go to first, and then where the Outward Bound “Home place” was on the map. She made sure our compass bearing to the lake was correct, then she and Margie waved and said,”See ya at “Home Place” tonight.

We were alone. Lynn and Margie had never actually been with us when we were canoeing around, but they were always within yelling distance if we needed help. Now we were going through about 10 miles of thick, unpopulated forest with noone for help but ourselves. Trying to cover up our apprehension, we started off at a brisk, enthusiastic pace ready to test the skills we had learned the day before.

Jane went ahead plowing through the various obstacles of forest life with the stick and bandana while the rest of us followed behind. Cathy and I worked the compasses, while Anne and Kris carried the two packs, which were fairly heavy. Nancy and Andrea walked along behind.

We were making good time. We kept switching off our positions and packs, and finally I ended up as trail blazer with the stick. I stayed there for a long time and didn’t mind it because up there I was more alone than I had been in the last 5 days, and needed this time to think over the events of those days.

We kept plowing forward and forward and forward. The map being used was topographic, so from it we were supposed to be able to tell where there were hills and marshes to make sure we were pointed the right way. But we had a hard time figuring out distances we were walking and the heights of the hills according to the map, so it didn’t help us much. We just tried to stay on course using the compass and bandana laden stick. We plowed on for ages through trees, bushes, marshes, up and down hills. Sometime the foliage was so thick I could only go a few feet with the stick before I was out of sight. The bugs and gnats and black flies were so thick it was sometime hard to see through them.

Everyone was getting hot and tired and hungry and crabby. The pace slowed down because people were being left behind. We took rest stops more frequently. We ran up every hill in the hope that the lake could be seen from the top. No luck. Finally after about four hours straight of walking, the lake, Little Gabro was sighted. We ran all the rest of the way and immediately sat down to eat lunch. We had peanut butter, cheese, salty crackers and dates. We were ravenous.

We hadn’t exactly hit the part of the lake we had been aiming for, but it was good enough. We ate slowly and sat around trying to put off as long as possible the fact that we were going to have to go off into that forest again.

“Let’s just sit here and have them send out a search party for us.”

“I’m thirsty, I shouldn’t have eaten all those crackers.”

“Sorry, can’t have any more water, we have to save it in case we get lost and have to spend the night in the forest.”

“We have to make it to prove to Lynn and Margie we can do it. I don’t think they believe we can.”

“My feet hurt.”

“I’m thirsty.”

“We’d better go. The sooner we go, the sooner we get there.”

Slowly we packed up and started onward again with a new compass bearing pointing to Spruce Road next to the entrance of the “Home Place”. I was up in front with the stick again because I moved the fastest. The next six hours were the most frustrating of my life. Just had to keep going no matter what was in the way. The straight line designated by the compass took me through mud, over huge boulders, across streams, through marshes, over hills, through clouds of bugs. My eye was all swelled up from a bite and I had trouble seeing where I was going. My whole body was itching from all the mosquito bites from the day before. The foliage was so thick it was impossible to see further than 3 feet most of the time. When I made it through whichever obstacle was blocking my path, I then directed everyone else the easiest way to follow me.

The forest seemed never ending and we were all getting really tired. It had been a busy couple of days. There was constant complaining from some of the girls about how much their feet hurt or how the packs were hurting their backs. Kris announced that she was ready to quit and pitch a tent. We convinced her that we had to be almost there since the sun was sinking lower in the sky. Then Anne started crying. “We’ll never get out of here. We’re lost…” We convinced them both to keep going even though the rest of us were feeling about as hopeless. The road couldn’t be too far.

Again, we ran up the hills hoping to see the roads. And again the road was never there. Once I saw what looked like the road. We ran yelling and screaming only to find sand.

Sometimes I’d be plowing through thick branches and be blinded by tears of frustration. My arms were scratched and bleeding from branches and my face all puffy from bites and I began to believe we’d never get out, but I kept a positive front for the rest of the group.

We came to a large hill with no trees. I ran up it as usual finding some extra strength that had been hidden away, hoping it wouldn’t be wasted. At the top I thought I saw a road. Not wanting to say anything because of the disappointment caused the last time, I said nothing until I ran down to see for sure.

“The road!! The road!! We made it!!!!!”

Everyone came running down the hill laughing and shouting. Anne started crying she was so happy and to celebrate Kris broke out the water and we drank it like champagne. Looking down the road, we found we were only 100 yds. from the entrance to “Home Place”. We were so proud. So after ten hours of trekking through the woods we linked arms and danced down the road, forgetting our irritation at each other, towards our first shower and decent food in five days.

 

Conclusion

That was the end of the first five days of my Outward Bound trip. These days were called ‘Immersion’ which is a very appropriate title because within those days we were immersed in so many situations that we had never before come across, and ones we never would have believed. Within five days we had been snatched from a world of television, stereos and electric knife sharpeners into a world where we could drink the water from the lakes, watch a sunrise, sunset and the Northern Lights without having to pay for it and where we had to dig a hole and use leaves for toilet paper.

I shared with you only the first five days because they showed all the surprises we encountered and what we were called on to do while the thoughts of sleeping in a warm bed were still fresh in our memories; how we had to rely on resources we never knew we had; mentally, physically and emotionally. We had to call on the resources for the rest of the course too, sometimes more so, but by then we had come to sort of expect the surprises that jumped out at us. The first five days it was all brand new and a slap in the face. They were hard days also because we had to realize that each of us were not the only ones in the world, out here we needed each other to survive.

I could have told you about ‘Search and Rescue’ at 4:00 AM in the morning, where we had to comb the thick woods looking for a simulated lost person and then having to carry the person out of the woods two miles on a stretcher made of sticks and blankets. I could tell about the incredible ropes course with a high wire gong 70 feet in the air where the only way down was via a zip wire.

I could have written about our experience with whitewater canoeing, or canoeing across lakes against the wind and five foot waves. Or about the famous ‘Horse Portage’, a closed off portage trail a mile and a half long that they allow only Outward Bound students on- up and down hills, through swamps and over trees neck high cut down by beavers, and finally getting through being more mentally and physically drained than I had every been in my life.

I could have told about how difficult beavers made our lives. They chomped down trees across portage trails that fell neck high making it impossible to get a canoe over or under. They damned up the streams we were suppose to canoe down, so we ended up crashing. I could have written about my ‘solo’ – being alone on an island for three days and nights. Or about my favorite part, climbing the cliffs on the North Shore of Lake Superior, repelling down the 170 ft cliffs with the Great Lake bashing the rocks beneath us and then climbing back up. And getting up one day before dawn at the North Shore, and sitting on the cliffs to watch the sun rise over Lake Superior.

I could have written about more Orienteering and most of all about all the people I came in contact with. That would take a book in itself.

Outward Bound was not a glorified canoe trip. It was much more, something unexplainable in a few pages. So much was learned about myself, and others. In the wilderness everyone is equal no matter where they come from, what they’re wearing or what they look like. Why should it be any different in ‘civilization’? An important thing learned also is that everything is in the mind. If you really believe you can do it, you can do anything. There were many times during long portages or a never ending day, when I didn’t think I’d make it. But after my mind convinced my body it was possible, I usually made it to the goal. We were in some of the most beautiful area of the country and we never stopped long enough to enjoy the scenery. We must have been on a hundred out of the thousands of lakes in Minnesota and had time to swim 3 times and take two baths in 24 days. The leaders continuously put us in stressful situations so we had to reach for everything we had. For the rest of my life I’ll be glad I went on this trip.

September 1974

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High Adventure in a Milk Truck

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The morning was clear and cold as the sun rose, creating a pink glow on the mountains. I stood on the corner in front of a gas station with my thumb out and all my belongings in an orange frame backpack on the ground next to me. I needed to get to the Denver Airport from Frazer, CO. It was not my idea to hitchhike and I was pissed.

It was August of 1978 when I had finished Geology Field camp in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I had caught a ride with several of my fellow students down to Winter Park, CO. I was visiting my brother on my way to the Denver airport to return to school. Field camp was a pre-requisite for Geology students and this had been a six week college credit class. We had been outside most of the days putting what we learned in the classroom at college into practical application out in the field. More about that later because this story isn’t even about the camp, but about my trip home.

The visit to my brother had been set up far in advance as there were no cell phones or e-mail in those days.  We had to really think ahead and plan. I was going to take a bus to where he was living which would have been a long and arduous journey from South Dakota to Colorado. Fortunately some of my new friends were traveling to another part of Colorado and it wasn’t too far out of their way to drop me off on the corner in front of a gas station in Frazer, CO. I had called my brother from pay phones along the way to update him on my journey. It was early in the evening when I arrived in his town. He had given me directions to the restaurant where he worked and I was able to walk there to meet up.

We had a fun couple of days as my brother shared his Colorado life with me, hiking and hanging around the restaurant where he was working. Winter Park was beautiful with the high mountains, fresh Colorado air and quaking aspen trees. I totally loved it and it was a nice break after an intense 6 weeks.

Frazer, CO is really an ideal location in that it is in the mountains but is only a few hours from a major city. The road to Denver winds up steeply over Berthoud Pass and then    down to I-70, the main highway across Colorado. The road over the mountain pass has  lots of switchbacks which make it so that you have to drive very slowly in order to safely navigate all the curves.

BerthoudPass1Berthoud Pass

The plan had been for my brother to drive me to the airport on the morning of the third day, leaving early to get me there in plenty of time and so he could get back to work by the evening. The night before we were to head to the Denver Stapleton Airport (a 2 hour journey) he let me know that, “Oops, I just found out I have to work earlier than I thought,” and therefore wouldn’t be able to drive me to Denver. But, “not to worry”, he would drop me off at the same corner where my friends had deposited me a few days earlier and I could hitchhike to the airport. He had hitchhiked there before and it would not be a problem.

Of course, I was aghast. I had never hitchhiked before, I had no idea how to get to the airport, and since I didn’t know how long all this was going to take was nervous about missing my flight. I couldn’t believe he would do this to me. Now, I realize that he was a 20 year old guy at the time and had hitchhiked a lot and didn’t think it would be a problem for me to do it also.  I wasn’t very good at voicing concerns in those days thinking that everyone else would be just fine with this scenario so I should just suck it up and do it.

The next morning, after a sleepless night, I was back on the street corner in front of the gas station. Everything I was traveling with was in my orange frame backpack. That meant I was carrying a few changes of clothes, a sleeping bag, various compasses and notebooks, and even a few rock samples. I was wearing what I couldn’t fit in the pack… my hiking boots, pants, flannel shirt and jacket. I looked like a scruffy mountain girl. I had been outdoors hiking and doing science in dirt for 6 weeks, and looked it. In those days I hadn’t been out in the world much and was very naïve, so it was probably a good thing that my clothes were baggy and unkempt. I was nervous but mainly because I was embarking on an unknown experience.

I had to ask my brother how to hitchhike. He coached me to stand in a spot where it was easy for the vehicle to pull over, put my backpack on the ground next to me, stick out my thumb and make eye contact with the drivers. OK.

I was standing there for about 7 minutes before a truck pulled over. It was a huge white tanker truck. There was a slow speed limit where I was standing, because it was in town, so it was easy for the truck driver to pull over and stop right in front of me. I put my backpack on without fastening the shoulder straps and went as fast as I could to the passenger side of the cab. I told him I was going to Denver and he said that so was he. He reached over and helped me hoist my pack in and threw it behind the front seat into what looked liked his sleeping area. He had fashioned a wall behind the driver’s seat with a small opening into a cozy space that would be the back seat. It had a kind of an unmade bed in the space, with shelves for some items.

I don’t remember much about the guy. He was maybe mid- 40’s and 200 lbs, wearing jeans and a dirty t-shirt covering up a little paunch. He was balding a bit and had a slightly pock marked face. He greeted me and we chatted pleasantly for about a half hour about why I was hitchhiking, where I had been and where I was going. I was stiff from fright and was sitting over as far to the right on my seat as I could without appearing rude.

Did I mention that this was a big white tanker truck that was filled with milk? As we started driving the milk would slosh around in the back. We’d go around a sharp switchback to the left and the milk would slosh mightily to the right and cause the truck to feel slightly unstable. It was very loud. Obviously the driver was used to this and did not seem alarmed so I calmed down a little. After about 30 minutes of sloshing down the road and making small talk he reached over and started to fish around in the ashtray. He  pulled out a funny looking cigarette and it took me a minute to realize that it was a joint. Of marijuana. And he put it in his mouth. And pulled out a match. And I’m thinking, wait, he’s driving this big humongous truck. Filled with milk. On a steep mountain pass. With all these curves. What the hell?

He lit it up and yessir it sure smelled like marijuana. He took a really deep drag and handed it to me. My brain was saying,” What am I going to do? What am I going to do? I need to be polite and take a small toke” even though I didn’t enjoy smoking because it made me think too much but it seemed like the right thing to do in this situation. I took the joint and one small puff, handed it back and gripped really tightly to the seat. I politely refused it the next few times he passed it over between his tokes as he smoked it down to a nub. His eyes started to get really red and droopy, he slurred his words a bit and started to talk in a very friendly way. I felt just a little stoned from my one puff and my heart rate started going up again. Mainly I was nervous that he was driving this big truck and was really high. It was evident that I wasn’t going to be able to get out. I was scared to ride with him and I was too scared to ask for him to stop and let me out. We were in the middle of nowhere in the mountains and I wouldn’t have felt comfortable getting out right there. I breathed deeply to calm myself and let him talk about places he’d been, answering occasionally with one word through clenched jaws.

After a little while longer, he reached back into his sleeping area with one arm as he kept his eyes on the road. He fumbled around and popped something open and there was the unmistakable sound of a hand moving around in ice. I saw he was reaching back into a cooler. After a couple of seconds of pushing around some ice he pulled out a Coors beer. “Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod,” said my brain. Everything I had been told not to do was happening to me. I was a girl hitchhiking alone. I was with someone who was driving and smoking an illegal substance and now he was drinking, and driving. Did all truck drivers do this???

He popped the top and took a deep swig. He then offered the can to me for a sip as he took his eyes off the road and looked me over. Head to toes. Slowly. He smiled. I pretended not to notice his look and worked on appearing nonchalant. I brought the can up to my mouth and sealed my lips so that no beer went in, faking it. I was in no mood to party. It was evident that I needed to keep my head about me. This moment was an insight into my decision making. I was doing everything I shouldn’t be. I was hitchhiking with an older, stoned, drunk, and increasingly amorous male stranger, but I was on time and I was more afraid of missing my flight and/or getting dropped off in the middle of nowhere. I really didn’t know what to do, but deep down I trusted myself to get out of this safely.

The driver was taking more and more sideways glances at me as he checked me out. I could feel his eyes trying to see through my mountain girl baggy clothes. I was gripping more firmly to the seat as my heartrate was elevating. I was refining my outward appearance of being stoic and carefree.

We sloshed our way loudly down the steep windy road and almost to I-70, the main highway to Denver. He finished his beer and tossed the can into the back. He kept glancing over towards me.

After a few minutes on the highway he smiled, took a deep breath, and asked,” How about I pull over, and you and I hop in the back and make a little love?”

Silence..

The number of thoughts that went through my head in a very short time was astounding.  I had to calm my inner voice that was panicking, “Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod”. First of all, I had no interest in hopping in the back with him. He was old, I didn’t know him and I was not that kind of girl. We were driving down a highway going about 65 miles an hour. I looked out the window at the trees and road zooming by as I decided that I would die if I jumped out of the truck. All my stuff was behind me and it didn’t seem possible that I could grab my backpack and jump out gracefully without him grabbing me anyway. Somehow it seemed important for me to have my backpack with me no matter what. I didn’t see any way out so I opted for the direct route.

I calmed myself with some breaths, sat up straighter and put my shoulders back. I got myself feeling strong, looked him in the eye and as firmly as I could muster without sounding hysterical, I said, “NO!!!”.

I had no idea what his reaction would be. He outweighed me by 80 lbs. He could do anything he wanted.

He nodded, smiled sadly and said “OK, thought I’d ask”. And kept driving. Soon I realized that was the grand finale and after we had gotten to the highway he had stopped looking at me. My heart rate slowly returned to slightly above normal and my body mostly relaxed. We didn’t say another word to each other until he dropped me off at a bus stop to catch a bus the rest of the way to the airport. He wished me luck and drove off.

It took me quite a while to calm down after I got out of that truck. I was shaking all over. I did catch a bus, in less than 30 minutes and got to the airport with plenty of time to spare.

I felt empowered because I had made it to my goal (airport on time) and had been completely challenged. Also, the big stoned, horny driver had responded to a ‘strong me’ saying “no”. And that was an amazing feeling.

My 60 year old self puts myself back in the shoes of my 22 year old self. My younger self did not have the tools to say to the driver early on in the trip that she was uncomfortable and would he please just let her out. I remember feeling powerless to his partying and was terrified to be let out on the mountain pass. There were also no cell phones in those days and not as much traffic, so the mindset of a traveler was much different. I couldn’t just call someone for help. That driver was in a position of power and took advantage of it.

I’ve been reflecting on what we woman have to deal with as we navigate through life.  Since the milk truck event, in my life and career I have had many, many more uncomfortable experiences and events I would call harassment. And I have witnessed harassment towards other women. I know that most females who work or adventure, or who have walked down the street for God’s sake, have experienced this at some point in their lives.

One time an older co-worker (married with a daughter my age) with no warning, came up behind me and put a hand over each of my breasts. He pulled me tightly to him so I could feel his whole body against my back and legs. I yelled, squirmed away and turned around with my hand in a fist and my arm cocked to punch him in the face. He backed off right away, though he laughed. Recently, I learned that what he did is called ‘groping’. I can’t even count how many times I have found myself in uncomfortable situations with men since then. In all cases I was able to be strong and tell them to back off. And they all did.

We women are people, who are doing our best to live our lives.  Some women, depending on the severity of the abuse or their tolerance level for being in uncomfortable situations can get seriously de-railed from their path by having to deal with this day in and day out.

The positive about all this for me is that by having to rise up and make myself feel powerful in these situations it has actually helped me be a stronger person. I’ve had to  raise my personal bar every time and it has helped me to become the best me. What a way to learn that lesson…….

 

 

 

 

 

An Unexpected Adventure: Recovering From A Head Injury

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THE EVENT

“This is not good”, I said to myself while lying on my back on the ground. A guy came up to me and asked if I was OK. I assured him I was even though blood was flowing into my eyes by then. I had slipped on the ice while walking to work at the ski school and had fallen head first onto the pavement. My hands were in my pockets, so nothing braced my fall. That moment was the beginning of yet another journey in my life.

Not sure if I was knocked unconscious. If so, it was not for very long. Everything definitely went black, but with a ring of rainbow colors around the point of impact. So I felt like my consciousness and vision didn’t leave, but went inward for a few seconds. I remember taking note of the darkness and the colors, and at the same time thinking, “this is not good” so I was definitely connected to reality on some level.

I was able to make my way to my office to dress for the day. I am a ski instructor of private lessons and have an office because I’m also the supervisor of training for the Ski School. I was to meet my students in less than an hour. The thing about the ski instruction industry is that you are only paid if you have been assigned students for the day or if students return to take more lessons with you. I could come all the way up to work and if there were no students for me to to teach, then no pay. If I were to take the day off I would also lose my pay for the day. Working through pain and sickness was so much a part of my MO over my career that I went into my ‘autopilot’ mode even though I was dizzy with a mighty headache and covered in blood. I did clean the blood off my face. (Fortunately I didn’t land on my nose or my teeth.) I was going to meet my return clientele, no matter what. I got dressed and went out to work. My supervisors and my students took one look at me and said,“you are not skiing today. You are going home.” I had been given permission to stop, so I did.

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On the couch with my nurse

Symptoms and Effects

The thing with being “in” a head injury is that your reality is altered. I became totally in my head as if I was living in a tube in my mind. I couldn’t really see other than straight ahead and strangely that felt OK, and normal. The rest of my body was hardly connected except through extreme concentration. Outwardly I was a different person than before my fall though inwardly I was the same. I wasn’t as coordinated while moving (even though I knew what to do) nor could I pull the thoughts together to form the correct words that were needed in day-to-day life. I stopped being able to find the exact word I was looking for and had to settle for a second or third string word that didn’t quite describe what was in my mind. I learned later that when you bonk your head you can lose your peripheral vision so that the brain has less to focus on. It’s as if the brain brings all the energy back to itself and stops putting any of it out into the world. My brain had gone into an efficiency and energy saving mode.

Several weeks into the recovery I remember walking in a public place and really thinking about my walking and balance and was feeling quite good about it. I thought I was doing very well, though was concentrating very hard. A friend walked up and shocked me by saying, “Are you OK? It looks like you’re walking on eggshells.” That’s when it became clear to me that I was living in a different reality than before I hit my head. What felt like full functioning and full effort to me was only a fraction of where I used to be and I caught a glimpse of the journey ahead.

The split at the hairline of my forehead healed and there was no outward evidence of my accident, so a lot of people didn’t know I was altered. I did my best to fake it in spite of my headaches and dizziness and am fairly certain that people who didn’t know me well could not tell. I have tremendous resolve and focus and could put out energy towards my life for about 5 hours and then would have to go lay down. Being in a public place with lights and noise would give me a splitting headache right over my right eye. I started wearing sunglasses inside. The feeling of my headache was like a mining pick imbedded right above my right eyebrow.

I’ve always been a big exerciser and adventurer and my usual activities during the first summer after my wreck consisted of walking progressively longer distances with ski poles (for balance) a couple days a week and stand up paddling to the first buoy at the local reservoir that was about 100 yards out one or two days a week. (Before this summer I would paddle several miles each time). Getting on my bicycle terrified me because of the balance required. Physical activity where I got my heart rate up during that first year would cause headaches, as would putting my head below my heart. Basically, everything caused headaches and dizziness just some things worse than others.

Shopping for food was one of the worse things. I’ve never been much of a list maker for food shopping except for what we really needed. I’d write down ‘milk, eggs, greens, bread’ for example but no specifics. I usually walk along the aisles picking out things that we would need and look for inspiration for meals that way. Going into a store with all the bright lights and looking at all the choices of say, greens or cans of soup would just tire out my brain and give me a headache. I just couldn’t concentrate and would often leave before completing the task. So for months either I would make a list for friends or family and they would shop or I would think everything through at home and have a meticulous list to walk into the store with, complete with brand and type. My coping mechanism was to think it all through ahead of time, often the day before (so I could rest my brain before the actual shop), in order of the aisles I’d be walking through (which I visualized in my head). That way I could walk through the store and pull items off the shelves without having to make any decisions. I did not veer from my list. That strategy took away the multi-tasking and over-taxing of my brain.

The first time I drove up to work (about 45 minutes away) at the Telluride Ski Area, I had to pull over at the halfway point to rest for half an hour before continuing. My brain would just get so tired. That was about 2 weeks in.

The craziest thing is that making eye contact and actively listening to people was the most difficult thing to do. So essentially making my brain do two things at once would overload it. If it was a two-way conversation, in that the other person cared as much about hearing from me as I from them the headache was tolerable. But I started to call my headache spot the ‘Bullshit Meter’ because if the other person was doing all the talking, or their body language did not match their words (broadcasting insincerity). Ouch!!

Wasn’t able to read a book for 3 years. Started out not being able to even read a magazine article but kept at it and finally got through a few of those. Forget reading anything on the computer. I was in a book club throughout (still am) and the wonderful women would choose a book that I could find on audible.com. I listened to the book of the month while everyone else read.  I became a better reader by listening to books for a few years because I grew to appreciate the descriptive writing and rhythm of the story better. I now really prefer to listen but I’m reading my books now because of the novelty. Amazingly, even setting up audible.com on my phone or iPad, and finding and choosing a book was so uncomfortable for my head that I would have to do it  by closing one eye and looking at it sideways and taking breaks. Having a head injury is really a pain.

This accident happened at the beginning of March and I somehow continued working until the end of the ski season (after a week off), about one month, by my sheer will. I taught my return clientele and near as I can tell, faked most of them out.  Though at least two students who I taught a lot knew something was up. I would teach and then go to bed at about 6 PM to rest and be in the dark. In retrospect, and from all I’ve learned about head injuries since, it was really dumb for me to be out skiing every day. What if I fell again? I shudder to think about it now. But I was in the middle of a head injury at that time and was incapable of making good decisions for myself. I was on autopilot with what I knew best, teaching skiing. I think it was therapeutic for me to be on the mountain and moving around.  (Please read this article for more understanding http://www.outsideonline.com/2108551/impact-zone)

On April 5th, when the ski area closed, I collapsed on the couch. The next challenge then was that my son was graduating from high school in a few weeks and all the Moms were volunteering to put the graduation weekend together. My headache became overwhelming in the organizational meetings so in the end I was released from helping out. I still hosted a graduation party and house guests, faking my way through it and completely collapsing for a few days after that. (My friends and family did all the shopping and cooking for me.)

Maybe all that activity made my symptoms last longer, or some medical research says that you have to exercise the brain after injury just like say, a knee, but you know… there was too much to do to stop my life.

“Did you get an MRI?” people would ask. “Ummmm. No.” “I had a head injury and was unable to be my own advocate for a while.”  We live in a small town in SW Colorado and don’t have the resources of a big city. With how my brain was functioning at the beginning of all this I just thought that with my high deductible insurance I didn’t want to spend thousands to have a doc tell me what my emergency room doctor friend told me on the day of my wreck, “You have sprained your brain, it’s bruised and swollen a bit and it needs to heal.”

Should I have sought out more help from a neurologist or other mainstream doc? Perhaps. But I didn’t and through piecing together my own alternate therapies with out-of-pocket payments I was able to recover and feel like I got great value for what I spent. That said, I am also very grateful to my doctor friend who helped me on several occasions during my recovery. If he had given me any kind of different advice I would have followed what he suggested.

Recovery and Therapy

As soon as I was a little bit better I started to seek out some help to speed up the recovery and get to the bottom of my injury. In our town, we have lots of healers and I went to an Osteopath (doctor of structure) a bunch, spending hours on his table. He told me that a person’s skull is made up of moveable plates and when you bonk your head you can bind them up so that your brain doesn’t have enough space for healing. His work relieved some pain with a very gentle manipulation of my skull with his hands. It felt awesome to have that kind of touch on my head.

In case you are unfamiliar with what an Osteopath is or does, here is a description: https://augustana.net/academics/core/advising/advising-resources-for-students/pre-health/allopathic-vs-osteopathic-medicine.

Another local doctor in town put me in a hyperbaric chamber to aid healing. I crawled into a big tube that was around 3 feet in diameter and 8 feet long for an hour at a time for maybe a dozen times. The tube would be sealed up and be slowly pressurized until the inside of the tube was below sea level. At the same time I wore an Oxygen mask that gave me a very high concentration of O2. Here is a quote about the benefits of this chamber: “the increased pressure in the chamber in conjunction with breathing 91% oxygen-enriched air through a mask allows the blood, plasma and other liquids of the body to absorb additional oxygen, greatly increasing oxygen uptake by the cells, tissues, glands, organs, brain and fluids of the body. “ (Please read https://balancenaturalmedicine.com/therapeutic-services/hyperbaric-oxygen-therapy/   for more information.) During the treatment I could feel the painful part of my head buzzing.

After I got over the initial fear of being in an enclosed space I craved the chamber. There was a pad and pillow inside to lay on with a blanket to cover me. As the doctor would pressurize the chamber there would be a loud hissing noise and I would have to do the open the mouth thing to pop my ears several times. Can’t quite remember but I think it took about 7 minutes or so to become fully pressurized and then I just laid there for an hour breathing deeply. When the session was done and I crawled out often I would just sit on a chair because I felt so relaxed. I swear this helped my brain to heal.

balance-natural-medicine-hyperbaric-oxygen-therapyHyperbaric Chamber

Initially my emergency room doctor friend prescribed some kind of drug to make me lie still for a few days. (can’t remember what it was). It made me feel very groggy and sick to my stomach. So that didn’t work for me. Fortunately marijuana had just been legalized in Colorado and I discovered CBD pot (medicinal and non-psychoactive) which helped the pain and mellowed me out so I could hang out better because it seemed like I had an inability to stay quiet and rest. There is just too much to do in life and I didn’t want to take any time off from it.

Amazingly, noise canceling headphones helped too. My brain would get over-stimulated by noises or bright light. I couldn’t go into a restaurant for a few years because of all the stimulation. I remember going to a friend’s birthday party in a busy restaurant a few weeks after my accident, not fully realizing my new state of being yet, and got so overwhelmed that I had to get up and leave. If I had had my headphones and sunglasses on my experience that night would have been so much better but it would have been a sight.

You hear lots of stories of people with head injuries who are having such a hard time with their altered reality and headaches and inability to feel comfortable living their usual life that they become depressed and hopeless. That first year I flirted on the edge of the dark side just a few times that I remember. Once, my family went out to dinner without me. I had been having a ‘bad head day’ and wasn’t feeling up to making the trip to a loud restaurant. I remember laying in bed curled up in a fetus position just crying at the sheer challenge of living in this state. Another time was when we were dropping my son off at college and not only was I emotional about him leaving home, but I couldn’t do a good job helping him settle in because my head hurt so much. I have a good ability to keep the faith and in both cases was able to talk myself out of any depressive thoughts. Not everyone has that ability and I can totally see how a person could go to the ‘dark side’ and into depression. I am soooo empathetic now. I just kept looking for ways to help get myself better.

I never lost my ability to think and organize but after a year my headaches were not going away. And I would get an instant headache when looking at my Iphone or my Apple laptop. I went back to a flip phone which really helped. For several years I connected my computer to our TV, sat 5 feet away and could use my computer and do my work that way. My Osteopath and I finally figured out that my headaches were visually triggered and he sent me to an Ophthalmologist who specializes in head trauma to see if we could figure out the headaches.

I learned that an Ophthalmologist differs from optometrists and opticians in their levels of training and in what they can diagnose and treat. An Ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who has completed college and at least eight years of additional medical training and is licensed to practice medicine and surgery. An ophthalmologist diagnoses and treats all eye diseases, performs eye surgery and prescribes and fits eyeglasses and contact lenses to correct vision problems.

Lots of eye tests later, she explained (in my lay terms) that my head injury had caused swelling in the brain. The swelling had caused the optical nerves to get squished thereby minimizing information being sent from the eyes to the brain and back. My eyes were seeing double and were unable to track together. The result?? Headaches.. You can’t believe how happy I was to hear that there was a reason for my symptoms!

First thing was they gave me glasses with special lenses that helped immensely. I had a ‘see-close’ pair and a ‘see far’’ pair to my prescription. The glasses had a special prismatic lens which basically moved my eyes into the direction they needed to go. They altered the world enough so that my eyes did not have to work as hard to focus. The pain eased substantially. I wore one pair of the glasses constantly with both on cords around my neck so I could be switching them back and forth as needed. Dorky, but necessary. I was psyched!

For the next three months of summer I drove 1.5 hours each way every Wednesday to see my eye therapist. And would do the therapy I learned every day of the week after that. I was very committed and the perfect patient because I did everything they told me to do. At first I would get a headache driving there but by August those were going away. One of my exercises was training my eyes again to be able to focus near and then far. Driving would wig out my brain because of looking far at signs and then close at the speedometer, and then if I was listening to music or a book on tape my brain could not handle all that multi-tasking.

The therapy included exercises to: focus far to focus close, balance on a balance board while playing catch (to train brain multi-tasking), focusing on different quadrants of my view (high left to high right to low left, etc), throwing a ball that bounces off one of those bouncy nets back to you to activate the ability to focus on something coming at you from far to close, tracking a swinging ball hanging from the ceiling, exercises to improve peripheral vision and on and on and on.

We were retraining my brain to connect to my eyes properly and it worked quite well.

Lessons Learned

My therapy was finished by September and they sent me off into the world on my own for several months. I go back every Spring for a checkup and the doctor tells me that our work ‘stuck’.

It took almost 2 more years after the eye therapy was complete to feel ‘normal’ again. I continued wearing both pairs of glasses and have slowly weaned off of wearing them all the time. Sadly my Osteopath moved away but am continuing to work with a Chiropractor to keep my head and neck aligned. I still have to stay hydrated, eat healthy food and keep my blood sugar steady, get good sleep and not overdo it in any realm to stave off headaches. That is good life advice for me, head injury or not.

Now, 4 years later I’m 95% headache free and can find my words and exercise to almost the level I could before. I still forget things but really, is that a head injury or age? It was a lot of work but I didn’t give up or give in. And I learned a lot. Here are some things that I learned from my journey that work for me:

-never walk with your hands in your pockets (especially on ice)
-spending time with people who talk about themselves and don’t listen to you can make your headaches worse, so be around people who feed your soul
-limiting screen time can reduce headaches and anxiety
-stay hydrated
-get enough sleep
-eat good food for fuel
-good red wine and dark chocolate help your outlook
-go outside, and get your heart rate up every day
-be your own advocate
-accept help when friends and family offer it
-travel and adventure even if it hurts, it expands your brain
-appreciate your life!!!!

Above all, be mindful. I think about all my adventuring in my life from skiing steep runs, to mountain biking single track to rafting and SUPing rivers, to climbing mountains and I have never really had a serious accident. It seems when I’m doing something dangerous I’m usually really paying attention. This, my most life altering injury, happened when I was walking and evidently not being mindful about where I placed my feet. A friend of mine who is good at physics figured out that when my head hit the pavement it was going 35 miles an hour since my hands were unable to break the fall. From falling while walking….

Writing about this experience was important in completing my healing process. It turned out to be surprisingly difficult to write, and incredibly therapeutic at the same time. As you can imagine I now have incredible empathy for head injured people and I hope that my personal experience and journey can help others. My hope is also that you now have some understanding of what head injury patients could possibly be going through. As evidenced by my case, the pain and other issues continue on even after the outside wound heals up. I am a better person for it and that is all the silver lining I could ask for.

Thank you to all my family and friends for your incredible help and support!!