We circle as I point down at the trees. There, I say, is the spot. I see a creek and a patch of alder. It is the first patch of alder beyond the bridge site. The opening I saw on the aerial photos back in the Forest Service office, the place on the map where the contours widen, just before Dolly Creek. A good place to camp while I flag the new trail location. The pilot nods and looks at me, raises an eyebrow. Here? Suddenly I doubt myself. Go upstream, I say. I point wildly and try to get my bearings quickly as trees and river blur by. I see a bigger creek tumbling into the river and then cliffs. I point back downstream. That was the spot, I say. Okey doke, he says and turns the helicopter around. Green swirls past then brown, flecks of rock, a bit of blue. He finds the spot again, slows and pulls the front of the helicopter up slightly and floats down to the ground. He lands, gently settling the skids into wet sand, rocking back and forth, back and forth, looking over his shoulder and down to the ground, until the helicopter feels solid.
We decide on four days until pick up. I say, I’ll call Saturday, and he nods, the pilot does. He asks if I brought a gun. A gun? I ask, puzzled. The bears, he says, you out here all alone with the bears. I nod and smile. They won’t bother me, I say. I’m ok being alone. He shakes his head and says he doesn’t like it. He says he doesn’t like to drop me here alone and worse without a gun. I smile then unplug my flight helmet from the radio. I wave goodbye and mouth thanks, big and dramatic, making my mouth wide. I climb down out of the helicopter, pull my backpack from the backseat, close the door and step away, crouching low and half carry, half stumble, drag my heavy pack away, embarrassed I can’t do it with ease, knowing he is watching. I heave the pack behind a log then turn and give a thumbs up. He lifts away, slowly rising above the tree tops before waving goodbye and turning down valley. He accelerates and is gone.
I think now of the big brown we startled once near the head of Milk Creek. The helicopter hovered low, rotor wash rippling the vegetation, all of it, the tall salmon berry, the ferns, the green of it moving like one living thing. Out of it burst the bear, big and brown. At first we all yelped grizzly. Must be. His fur rippling as he ran. But it wasn’t. We see no hump, no tell tell signs, just a large brown black as they say.
It is quiet after the helicopter. I stand on the sandbar and look into the dark of the forest. Doug Fir, hemlock, cedar. And upstream the alders fall off the edge of the slope and into the river. The river roars behind me, chalky blue and full of silt. I head for the trees, wondering if bears go where I do and when and how and if I’ll meet them there in the shadows. Maybe I should be scared, maybe I should have a gun. Maybe I should worry like the pilot does.
I find a place to camp upstream on a small bench above the river close to where a small creek falls so I’m not tempted to drink the gritty river water. The creek water pools near the base of the bench, shaded by the forest edge. It is soft and mossy here and out to the river stretches a sandy beach, strewn with rocks and the scattered flood debris of broken logs and branches. It has been several years since the floods and tiny alder saplings push their way through the sand. I take off my boots and walk in the moss, walk in the sand, in the cool pool of water gathered at the edge of the bench. And out beyond the trees is sunlight, sunlight that lingers late into the evening. I watch as it turns the barely visible peaks pink.
Someday, when this is done, there may be a new line on the map. A dashed line. The line will tell people to go here and you’ll find a bridge, or turn and go north to Canada or downstream to town. It is a long way now to civilization, with bridges and roads gone. Over thirty miles. Sometimes I think maybe we shouldn’t build a new bridge, reconnect the trails, make everything safer. But we’re not tasked with just letting things be. We are fixers and maintainers, builders.
Across the river from my campsite is the ridge with a fire lookout. From there the trail continues east to the dry side of the mountains. I suppose I wouldn’t know that without having looked at maps all these years, without having walked these trails and bridges someone built. Now I know this place. I know which drainage leads where, or if I turn off the trail what I most likely will find. I do this sometimes to surprise myself, to see if I can get lost or what I might find in the woods. Once I saw a cougar. It was near dusk on a still day. I saw the branch of a huckleberry bush bend in the breeze, except there was no breeze. I stopped and looked up slope and there a cougar watched me. We stood for some time, me admiring her rich tawny coat, the twitching of her tail, the steadiness of her eyes. Then I got spooked and raised my hands over my head. She did nothing so I jumped up and down and up and down and off she ran. Once she was gone, once it was just me and the quiet again, I regretted my panic.
There are many things to regret in life. Maybe I will regret this line on the map. First it was one flood and then another that took the bridges and trails away; a progression of events that led me to be here on this side of the river where no one else has walked much except maybe a long ago hunter or two. I find a bit of faded orange flagging and wonder if some other trail worker was here, maybe this was once already considered to be the trail location. That someone had already tried to find a location here for a trail. Or not – maybe it was just a random hunter or a biologist or mushroom picker or hiker even.
For days I walk up and down and back and forth across the slopes. I find where the land turns wet and dark and dank at the base of the slope. I see where an old burn has licked its way across the hillside. I find where the rock turns steep and weave my way between the river bank and cliffs. I find cedar swamps singing with frogs and old growth Douglas fir stands with trees eight feet in diameter. I find the little trees, mountain hemlocks stunted in growth but dappled in sunlight, the ground covered in a thin layer of moss, strewn with large river rock and underneath all the moss, sand. This, I think, is where the trail building will be easy. I make my way to my destination, Vista Creek, following the slope high above the creek, in and out of drainages.
I spend days hanging flagging from trees and bushes, three miles from Vista Creek down to the new bridge site. This may eventually become a line on a map. I don’t know for sure. I am glad to be alone with the task, to stumble as I might, to falter, to fall or fail. To have no witness to my weakness or frustration. I am glad to let the ground guide me. I can’t do that and chatter at the same time. I don’t want debate or consensus, that can come later.
I will question the route that I have taken over and again. I will wonder if I went the best way. Even after the route has been reviewed by bosses and biologists, after appeals, near lawsuits and reviews of reviews, even after contracts are awarded and people move in, even after I hear clatter in the woods, follow the progression of the trail building, see the fallen trees, the broken rock, I will wonder if I went the right way, did the right thing. I’ll slip off into the cedar swap, climb up the slope a bit, eyeball the contour, close my eyes and imagine the line on the map, the people who will come and what they will see.
After three days I radio the pilot and talk about when he will return. He asks about the bears. No bears, I say. But I find evidence, a print in the sand, torn stumps among the Douglas fir, large piles of scat in the salmonberry bushes and old growth devils club. Vegetation so thick I can’t see above or through it. I am jealous of the bear and the easy way I imagine he moves. I know the bear is here. I know he is aware of me.
The helicopter comes the next afternoon. I wave my hands in the air as he circles overhead and pulls up for a landing. I drag my pack over the sand and into the helicopter. I crawl into the seat and plug my flight helmet into the radio. We chat about bears, about what I found, but then I’m quiet, exhausted. I watch the wilderness slip from view, watch for the start of roads, then the patchwork of clear cuts. It is hot and muggy. I am too tired to talk but the pilot chats, he tells me how it is to fly, how it is to get into the sky, to leave things behind, whatever is going on down there seems small and insignificant. He looks down and is quiet. I can get my bearings, he says and looks at me. I nod. I think I understand. The sky is his wilderness the way trees are mine. He lifts us up and over a ridge. We can see town off in the distance. A small thing it is. We fly over the white church, the grocery store. I see folks talking in the parking lot between cars then the hanger comes into view and the airport, and down the valley the sloped edges of the mountains that flank the valley. Then we land.
It will take more than three years to construct the trail. There will be near defaults, and battles, words spoken. There will be lying and cheating and people not getting paid. There will be dirty camps and broken rules, complaining. But no one will see a bear. No one will see a bear anywhere along the new trail location, not in the camp nor in the forest. Not until the final inspection. It will be the two final inspectors who look down from a high bank above the river, there among the little trees, before the trail starts the climb to Vista Creek. They will look down one June day and see a large bear snuffling among the new green growth on the riverbank. Just a large brown black, they’ll say, before he disappears into the dark of the forest.