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here there be bears

I rolled over lazily in my sleeping bag and squinted at the bright light that shone through the tops of the trees. It was morning. I stretched and adjusted my woolly hat and tucked my matted hair back behind my ears. The mosquitoes from the night before still hovered, humming and buzzing around my face. I swatted them and turned to say good morning to Bob, who was waking up a few feet away. Simpson Lake was hidden behind the numerous spruce, aspen, and pine of the Fitzpatrick Wilderness, but I could smell the moisture in the air. We’d hiked in about six miles the night before, excited about spending our weekend in the mountains, and our spirits remained unhindered despite the clouds of biting mosquitoes that met us at the entrance to the national forest. At this point our supply of insect repellent was still intact and effective. It was the first time I’d ever slept out under the stars: no tent, no tarp, no shelter except for the soft downy warmth of my blue North Face sleeping bag and a Therm-a-rest. I’d been too tired to fully enjoy it; I was snoring almost as soon as I established a workable breathing hole that would allow me to inhale fresh air and also discourage the mosquitoes from attacking me while I was sleeping. This was the end of my first week as a carpenter, and it was a long one. Before our hike, Bob and I had spent the day coaxing tongues and grooves together to cover over half of the kitchen ceiling in beautiful, knotted, aspen boards. This meant balancing on ladders, nail gun in hand, neck in a permanent backwards crick. One of us would fit the new board into place with chisel, mallet, or wedge while the other fired nails into the ceiling studs. Tiring work, but immediately rewarding to look up and see the old, ugly, rough-hewn logs disappear under smooth blonde aspen.

Still blinking sleep out of my eyes, a movement in the trees fifty feet away caught my attention. “Oh…there’s a bear!” I whispered, nonchalant only out of shock. Bob laughed, thinking my lack of excitement indicated a joke, and then choked abruptly as he looked where I was pointing. A young black bear was stalking us, slowly, cautiously, obviously drawn by the scent of our food, which hung in a tree on the other side of our camp. We lay silently, breathlessly, watching it to within twenty feet. “How close we goin’ to let it get?” Bob asked. “Not much closer than this!” I declared, and we both sat up hurriedly. “GOOD MORNING, BEAR!” I shouted, and watched it stop short to assess this new obstacle between it and its breakfast. Bob worked to keep it away by shouting and hammering his hatchet against the trees and logs. It kept its distance, but would not be deterred. It paced a half circle around the camp, sniffing our cooking gear, and even trying to walk off with Bob’s jute dish brush at one moment. Eventually it tired of the game, and lay down across a log to watch us and wait for us to pack up and leave it to sniff at our leavings.

With this exhilarating start to the morning, Bob and I climbed rapidly up the lake shore to our next camping spot, startling a bull moose and an impressively-antlered elk along the way. At Dead Horse Lake, elevation 9,000 ft, we dropped our gear and cooked up a filling breakfast of oatmeal and trail mix while admiring the view: a small, round lake, more of a pond, really, with spruce-lined shores and steep mountains surrounding it. Several large, recent rockslides spoke of the youth and instability of the peaks, but the tiny hillock where we made camp was peaceful and protected. It was, however, also home to about 3,784,331 mosquitoes. I know this because I was counting the number of times I slapped, whacked, squished and swore at the tiny, needled devils between spoonfuls of breakfast. Our repellent situation had taken a turn for the worse. The plastic bottle had broken, spilling precious, potent elixir all over my backpack. My pack, my book, my stove, my toothbrush, and my water bottle were all marvelously protected from mosquitoes, black flies, horse flies, deer flies, ticks and more. Bob and I, on the other hand, had little more than thin layers of polypropylene and wool to keep the buggers off. These two fabrics, while excellent for keeping warm and dry, put up absolutely no resistance when confronted with mosquitoes. We were covered.

We retreated to higher ground, to Lost Lake, where the elevation (10,500 ft) seemed to discourage the mossies, and spent a pleasant afternoon, miles from civilization, and that much closer to heaven. I read, took pictures, and later, growing sleepy, followed the lake to the place where it narrowed and began to flow like a tiny creek down the side of the mountain. The clear water ran across rocks and grass, and where it touched earth tiny flowers sprang to life and sucked gleefully at its sweetness. Indian paintbrush, purple-and-cream columbine, and dozens of nameless wild things in blues, whites, yellows, pinks, and purples. Bob found me later as I stretched and climbed and worked my way across a massive boulder field, rocks three times my height. “Where are you going?” he called. “To the other side!” I shouted back. “Why?” “To see what’s there!” I laughed. On the other side, I found, was a narrow green valley, and towering above it, a dark fortress of rock. Flat on the top and sheer on the sides, I was looking at a long castle rampart, booby-trapped with precariously balanced rocks and cornices of snow, just waiting for an invading army to attempt a breach. Gorgeous. I lay on my back in the stiff, prickly alpine grass, gazed out into the valley, and just breathed.

Then we had to climb back down. The sun was tending toward the western part of the sky, but several hours of daylight remained yet. As soon as we reached our makeshift camp, the mosquitoes returned. I could almost hear them laughing with glee as they dove upon us and plunged their tiny daggers through our layers of clothing and into already itching skin. Bob caught fish in the lake for dinner, and in doing so acquired enough bug bites to swell his eyes to tiny, puffy slits and his nose to a shape that Karl Malden might have recognized. I cooked potatoes in the fire, and sliced veggies and lemons to roast in butter with the fish. It was a beautiful night – campfire, sunset, fresh fish, outdoor cooking – but I barely took it in. I was rather occupied in squishing the daylights out of any buzzing thing that thought to land on me. The little bastards were relentless. Bob and I could have made up our own rhythm band with the beats we were creating, slapping and tapping and bopping and socking. All to no avail. The buggers kept coming. We stood in the campfire smoke until our eyes watered and screamed. We walked up and down, pacing the length of the campsite while we shoved the food into our faces. Still, we had to stop moving long enough to lay out our sleeping bags and wash our dishes, and the mosquitoes were so thick they formed a visible aura around us. As soon as the chores were done, we were in our sleeping bags, wrapped up and willingly foregoing fresh air in the interest of being without mosquitoes.

I fell asleep, and woke perhaps four hours later, suffocating. I poked my head out of the bag and gasped oxygen gratefully. It took me a moment to realize what was different. No mosquitoes! It was cold – perhaps forty degrees – and a full moon had risen magnificently over the lake, bright enough to illuminate the mountains around us, cold enough to have sent the mosquitoes to bed. It was a small miracle, and I gulped greedily at the air and relished the quiet. They were back by morning, and we literally sprinted out of the woods. Eight miles in four hours, barely stopping for an apple and an energy bar. Back at the Bronco, we slumped into the seats and grinned tiredly at each other. “I. Have. Never. Seen so many mosquitoes on that trail,” Bob panted. A week later, I’m still itching.

Back at the ranch, the days are darn near perfect. It’s hot – 95 in the shade today – but the house is usually 10-15 degrees cooler, and the air is dry, making the high temps far more bearable than a typical New England summer heat wave. My list of acquired skills is lengthening steadily. I learned basic plumbing: soldering pipes together to hook up an outside spigot; connecting PVC and copper to our temporary kitchen sink. We now have running water in the kitchen! I’ve disassembled old doors and learned how to create jam-extensions and casing around the old door frames, then worked on building up my arm muscles while I stripping several layers of ancient paint and finish from the doors themselves. Today I learned how to tape and mud sheet rock, and how to build a framed wooden panel to cover an access hole in the upstairs hallway. Our project for the next week will be constructing a railing for the staircase and then trimming, filling, sanding, and polyurethaning the whole lot.

Forest fires, both close and distant have obscured the horizon off and on for the last couple of weeks. Some mornings we wake to smoke in our throats and a thin gray haze floating through the valley where our house is situated. Then there were lightning storms, some with rain, some with only wicked purple clouds and brilliant white bolts. Bob and I sit on the porch and watch it all, content to be quiet observers, sometimes reading, sometimes talking, sometimes singing along to the radio. Most nights we spend at least a half an hour with the horses, grooming, playing, bribing our way into their hearts with carrots and other treats. There’s a little Arabian that I’ve named Lady – making her mine is my goal for the summer. Bob’s teaching me to gain her trust and slowly get her accustomed to a rider. First, the harness. Last night was the saddle, an ordeal that left the poor girl sweaty and edgy. We’ve got a way to go before I’ll be getting on her, but it’s something to work towards, and I love that I have the opportunity to live with and learn about the animals in this way.

It’s another windy night, and the cats are nestling closer, sharing their warmth. I love it, even though they make my eyes itchy. I’m rereading Les Miserables, the unabridged version. Soon I’ll get up and cook up some soup, or maybe I’ll just have a sandwich. Bob’s working at his shop in town, on a welding project or maybe rebuilding someone’s transmission, so for tonight it’s just me and the cats and the wind. Ahhhh yes.

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