"I'd rather drag a firehose through hell than write an email."
These were the words of a former classmate of mine, going into his second summer as a Type 1 Wildland Firefighter, and who I imagine is, this very minute, walking stoically through an inferno with forty pounds of dripping firehose slung over his shoulder.
Actually, I'm probably getting the words wrong. Maybe it was "work in an office," or "go back to school to be a doctor," that he would rather avoid. It doesn't matter. All these combinations of words echo in my head as I put one foot ahead of the other, compass in hand, shooting a bearing at the next patch of rain-soaked hazel.
Rylan, my work partner and a fellow intern, makes his way in the target direction. This is our second time flagging the Chute, a soon-to-be-built permanent forest access road in the middle of a heavily wooded area near Chitek Lake, Saskatchewan. It has been raining for an hour, but it is going to blow over in like, ten minutes, tops.
"About two steps to the left."
"Right there. There's an alder that's kind of shooting up a bit."
"Above your right shoulder."
He brings down a branch and ties an orange ribbon to the end. Our mission is to flag the road "as straight as can be... or else." The threat being: should the road be built and reveal some random spastic turn, it could be dubbed Andy and Rylan's Curve, or Those-two-students-who-flag-road-like-most-toddlers-draw-with-crayons Curve. We are determined to avoid this.
I bring the compass back to my eye and shoot the next bearing. Rain trickles down my jacket sleeve and pools from my elbow to my armpit. A low thunder rumbles in the distance. Rylan, who is looking crazier the wetter he gets, is totally focused on the job despite being completely soaked through his blue jeans. I find it uncomfortable to watch.
We check in with each other now and then to make sure no one is getting a chill, but when it takes half the day to get to where we are, the will to keep going is strong. There is something rewarding - on a primal level - about trudging through a drenched jungle and still managing to get some modicum of work done. Rylan puts it simply: "I just have to keep reminding myself that I'm fine—just uncomfortable," as he balances on one foot, emptying another boot full of water.
The first time we flagged the Chute, a thunderstorm developed right over us in the early afternoon. Rain fell in buckets. We started thinking about the roads we drove in on, and how long we had before they'd pose a serious problem to us getting out. It seemed any time we suggested the storm might pass over, it became intent on proving us wrong. We finally decided to leave, perhaps a bit too late.
We were flagging with two other Tolko interns at that time, Aidan and Duncan, based out of Meadow Lake. The escape from Chute was mostly done single file, led by flags that, in my opinion, were pretty dang straight. Cracks of thunder overhead put a skip in our step, the thick hazel dampening any kind of hurried pace.
Places we had marked for potential ephemeral streams had become full-on creeks on our way out. I tried not to think about what this meant for the roads — or the fact we had a loaded trailer to get out of there.
By the time we reached the treeline on the edge of a cutblock where we started flagging the road, lightning and thunder were an almost constant presence. Making our way across the cutover, a bolt of lightning struck a nearby lake with an eye-popping crash of thunder. I yelled something FPAC would almost certainly frown upon if I wrote in this blog, then jogged, head down, straight to the truck.
There was a break in the downpour, but the road was soft and dappled with pools of muddy water. Aidan and Duncan, unencumbered by a loaded trailer, were the first to go. Rylan and I stayed behind, waiting for them to radio us about the road quality, whether it was wise or not to bring the trailer. Seeing them leave in a constant fishtail did not inspire confidence.
Fifteen minutes later, Aidan's voice beams through the radio: "...Yeah, leave the trailer."
I have been in my share of hairy situations on the road. I've also made some great, if lucky, escapes. But the drive out of the Chute was by far the most intense white-knuckling I had ever done. The steering wheel spun wildly from one direction to another, splashes of mud washing over the windshield. I imagined I had commandeered a ship over rough seas. If we lost the slightest bit of momentum and control, we were sunk.
But we made it out. Cortisol levels returned to normal. I had a slight ache through my body from what I suppose was close to two hours of sustained adrenaline. And the drive back home was absolutely serene.
So, with only a bit of anxiety and excitement, being in the rain again at Chute is just the devil we know. We're wet, but at least the temperature is mild. The bugs aren't too bad. The trailer is still stuck, but we'll deal with that in due time. And now I'm starting to think. I'd rather flag a road through rain-soaked hazel hell than write an email.