Kona's Legacy of Caution

Since learning about Kona's tragic death (July 22nd entry), I've had heightened awareness and anxiety when running in the forest with the girls.

Yesterday - despite my anxiety - I drove the girls out to the trail where Kona met his death at the hands of the sheep herder. Twenty Mile Trail. It has been a few weeks since that incident, so I hoped the sheep had moved out of the area. We hadn't been there yet this summer, and I'd just learned that all the dead fall had been cleared away. I knew the girls would enjoy a "new" trail.

Unfortunately this was a particularly smoky day. I kept driving up the valley, hoping that by getting higher in elevation we'd rise above the smoke. At the trail head, the smoke was thick and heavy, burning my eyes and making me sneeze. I just couldn't stomach running in it. I didn't even let the girls out of the car.

Because the drive was a long one, I didn't want to give up too easily. I decided to try another trail - Crestline, even higher in elevation - that we hadn't visited since last year, when it was littered with dead fall that made the going difficult. On this day, I didn't really care. I just wanted to get out in the forest with the girls, away from the ever-present smoke.

The drive to Crestline trail head includes nine miles of very rough dirt road, the last half mile requiring a vehicle with high clearance as one slowly maneuvers over and around large boulders protruding from the road surface. The girls were incredibly patient.

We were rewarded with no smoke! We were above it! The sky was deep blue again!

There was one vehicle in the trail head parking lot. We wouldn't have the trail to ourselves, but almost.

There was also a large white canvas tent pitched several yards from the parking area, along the edge of the road. No vehicle was parked near it, and no one was around. Then I noticed a horse grazing at the far end of the large meadow where this tent was set. I was puzzled. Where were the people?

It wasn't until the girls and I were on the trail for a couple of minute that I heard it: bleating livestock. Sheep. Shit. We had stopped for the girls to drink out of a stream, one of the reasons I decided to try this trail since few have any water still flowing. Not too far off, that sound I've come to despise crawled over the ridge. This time, I was pretty certain it wasn't cattle. Which meant guard dogs. And herders with guns.

Suddenly, the tent and lone horse made sense to me: it was a herder's camp. Most wilderness campers, even hunters, have modern nylon tents, or stay in their campers. This white canvas tent was very old, a long A-frame style with weathered wood beams for support. The sort of gear I've noticed packed on herders' horses as I've watched them moving their herd across a road, from one section of forest to another. Their summer homes.

My mood went from elation at the lack of smoke to fear and anger.

It sounded as though the sheep were on the other side of a nearby ridge, but I couldn't tell what direction they were going, whether we would cross their path if we stayed on the trail.

I fumed. We'd just spent over an hour driving to this trail head. There are so few trails left that aren't closed because of wild fires. There was no sign - anywhere - warning that sheep are grazing in the area.

I had thoughts of starting a boycott against lamb meat, against any meat provider who uses public lands for grazing. I had lots of dark thoughts.

The girls sensed my tension and listened when I asked them to stay close, staying behind me. I knew there was another stream that was likely to still be flowing about a mile and a half up the trail, so decided we'd slowly and cautiously make our way there. As we did, I stopped frequently to listen, and the noisy herd seemed to be moving away from our trail, always just over a crest or ridge and never in sight.

Running with such anxiety is neither relaxing nor fun. Well, not for me. The girls don't seem to mind. We made it to the second creek, which indeed still had water flowing, and after the girls cooled their toes, we headed back. I tried to enjoy the scenery, but it just wasn't the same.

On the drive out, looking over the landscape, I noticed movement: a herder and a dog, just disappearing over a hill. A little further down the road, stopping to take photos of the smoke pooling in the valley below us, I heard the sheep. I saw them coming around a rock outcropping, far below me. The bottom photo used my camera's telephoto lens, yet even with that, the sheep (in the center of the photo) are hard to distinguish from the whitish boulders and silvered tree trunks left from a previous wild fire.

It's easy for me to envision how the person with Kona that fateful day never knew there were sheep up ahead. Kona, though, would have heard them, and smelled them.