At ten o’clock tomorrow morning, “I’m going in.” It’s an old expression used by fire watch, or lookout observers, who’ve become seasoned seasonal smoke-spotters from their isolated perches overlooking Alberta’s southern grasslands, foothills, alpine areas, and northern boreal forests. In less than 24-hours now, I’ll join the men and women who have fallen in love with this job of scanning the horizon for smoke, and embark upon a four-month adventure alone in the boreal forest.
In the Peace Country, the clean opening of the river, the faint dots of green that emerge from the aspen branches — darkening and thickening within a few days into blots of virgin green on the landscape — all of these signs of Spring have come weeks early this year. For those who live the fire watch lifestyle, they are signs of another kind of opening.
Tomorrow I’m scheduled to fly to my northern boreal tower to climb up into the sky and “open season.” My tupperware boxes are stacked high, packed with dried food goods, books, gardening tools and seeds, carving knifes, bedding, clothes and all-season, all-weather gear.
Meet Holly, my sole companion for the next four months. She's a rescue dog on loan to me for the summer. "She's very loving," said the owner. "She'll probably wait for you at the bottom of the fire tower everyday." Mwahh, already Tower Dog melts my heart. One week till Holly and I board the helicopter! #agirlsbestfriend #dogsofinstagram #towerdog #lookoutobserver #wildfire #fireseason #boreal #north #wilderness #offthegrid #solitude #firetower #firewatch #adventure
I lucked out at the last minute and found the perfect, most lovable “Tower Dog” named Holly who will be journeying out into the bush with me. She’s one of those “a little bit of this, a little bit of that”, a former rescue, farm-dog with a love for the outdoors and enough smarts to know what to do around a bear (and what not to do). She is also an excellent cuddler — a very important trait for a Tower Dog, if you ask me.
“Are you ready?” colleagues ask me.
“I’m ready. I guess I’m ready. I think I’m ready.”
“I’m so used to you coming and going,” my good friend said to me last week. “It will be as though you’re in Uganda, or Central America.”
Not for me. Where I’m heading feels like another country, the loneliest country you could imagine, void of human language, human interactions — though yes, I’ll still see some “sign” of humans on the landscape in the way of cutlines and the hazy edges of distant farmland. Country: The Bush. Population: 1 Human, 1 Tower Dog. Of course, the population is much more vast than that, considering the animals, the birds, the trees, and the boreal environment around me. I’m used to being a foreigner in countries that are not my own, but in the bush I’ll have to learn an entirely new language and a new way of interacting with the elements, the four-legged critters, the winged ones, and the bumbling, curious bears, nosing their way to the wild blueberry patches that edge my home. This is the ancestral territory of the First Nations people of Northern Alberta, the Beaver, Dene, Cree and Metis communities, who hunted for moose, caribou, and other ungulates, who dug for roots, collected berries, bark, and other plants to survive the harsh winters. I don’t forget my privilege for a second: this is a job and a lifestyle unlike any other. I am traveling lightly and humbly to my perch in the woods, eager to learn and not take up too much space.
Internally, the “going in” feels like the opening of a new personal chapter in my life.
The last three years have been dedicated to writing “Women Who Dig”, involving so much travel, research, writing, editing, re-writing, pitching, waiting, waiting — and waiting. The book has been well-received by editors and publishers, and I’m hopeful within a couple of months, I can reveal more about the process! (Until then, it’s hush-hush…but yes, Women Who Dig will take root!)
From the fire tower, I trust that new creative projects will find me. I’m already thinking about Book Number Two and excited to put the pen to page. Quite literally, the pen to page. I plan to start writing the way we used to write: with a pen and notebook. Up 100 feet in the air, a pen and a notebook represent a far more practical medium than my heavy, power-hungry laptop.
The last few days of #firetower training have been bizarre but beautiful: studying weather, cloud types (there are 27!), learning about fire behaviour and understanding what fuels #wildfire. And climbing into the sky to scan a radius of 40 kilometers and look for "big smoke" as they say. #100foottower #lookoutobserver #fireseason #Hinton #obedtower #climbing #adventure #solitude #outdoors #borealforest
Additionally, I’m going to say “So Long!” to gigabite-guzzling social media sites for the summer. My decision for this is two-fold: a) I’ll be living on a meager diet of 3Gs, and b) what’s the point of being alone in the forest if I’m busy, compulsive obsessively, egocentrically, checking out how many people liked, loved, reacted, etc. or commented on my posts? (Not to adopt a righteous tone/attitude here. I’m sure you can all agree there is a time and place for social media, just as there is a time to “check-out”.)
To me, the Tower offers a unique opportunity to temporarily disconnect from the inundation of digital content (Facebook rants, 400-word news stories, BuzzFeed, memes, etc.) and to spend my time focusing on “deeper learning” — reading books, letters and emails from friends, and cultivating my observation skills on the land — looking out (for wildfire, of course) and looking in (observing the internal fire).
I hope to take the time/energy to pen more intentional correspondence (emails and letters) to my dear ones, so if you’re interested to correspond with a Bush Girl for the summer, please do so!
I wish everyone a summer of “dirt under the fingernails, germination, growth, and harvest.” I hope your work, rest, and play brings about the best in you and your communities! I hope you find the opportunity to connect to the trees, the rivers, the garden beds, the farmland, and to feel the sun, rain, and wind upon your cheek. Thank you for reading and your continued love and support! Can’t wait to update you on the news of my book in the coming months.
…and don’t forget to put out your campfires!
Adieu, adieu. See you come another season.