Dachao at Mount Rainier by Faina Burman, written at 6:36 PM on Wednesday, Oct 15 2008

How we met Dachao and then got stranded in a hunting cabin...

It looks like it’s becoming a tradition – recording events about a year after they actually took place. I started a while ago, but it seems that the more I write, the more memories come to my mind, the ones I missed out when I was writing in my journal in Washington, simply because I didn’t have enough time for everything…

Let me start from the very beginning.

After Diana celebrated her parents’ big anniversary, she left for the long-awaited Idaho wilderness with Sergey and Venya. This year they decided to do two volunteer projects and Marina and I were joining them for the second one, in Washington, Mount RainierNational Park.

            …My flight to Seattle and my search of the ground transportation with Venya’s vague directions over the fading service of my cell phone seemed endless, but I finally saw the familiar figures and we were on our way to the hotel, only to go back to the airport, the next morning in order to meet the rest of our volunteer crew.


                            Meeting Dacha and the Crew

            Our crew turned out to be a quite diverse crowd of people of different ages and backgrounds. The rangers meeting us, Todd and Angela, were a very nice couple and made us feel welcomed right away. However, they weren’t there yet when we got to the airport. A slightly senile old man, who momentarily started telling us stories about his numerous previous volunteer projects, was the first one to greet us. His manner of speaking and his Virginian accent made it very hard to focus on what he was saying and after a while his monotonous voice just became a part of the background. His name was Leonard and, despite his age, he was in a very good physical condition. Amongst us we gave him a nickname “Dyadya L`onya”.

Eventually more people started joining us. There was a couple, pretty strange at the first sight. Two guys, with quite a difference in age, very physically fit and equipped for mountain climbing. The younger one, Andy, as we found out later was kicked out of home at about 17 and hasn’t spoken to his parents ever since. He lived in his tent for a year and some other stories that he told us about his life made a big impression on me. The older one, Stan, talked a lot less about his past. He once vaguely mentioned the Vietnam War and the girlfriend who wouldn’t wait for him to come back, but in general the two guys just kept to themselves. Both of them had a lot of equipment and were going to climb Mount Rainier. The last crew member was supposed to meet us right at the campsite, but there was still one person missing…

            Angela decided to make an announcement, so the last guy would know where to go. A couple of minutes later we heard the loudspeaker say that somebody else was looking for the same person at the different baggage claim area. Angela went there to look, found him and brought to join the rest…

            …I don’t think there was one person among us who didn’t react to this apparition; most of us could barely resist the hilarity. His name seemed impossible to pronounce at first, but we (the Russian gang) got a hang of it pretty soon. The name was Dachao, so we simply nicknamed him “Dacha”. Standing in front of us was a short scrawny Chinese guy, whose smile revealed two rows of incredibly humongous teeth. He was wearing oversized baggy khaki jeans and an oversized wrinkled buttoned shirt, reminding rather of a hanger than of a person. His feet found a refuge in some sort of blue hybrid between sneakers and city shoes, on a platform a little higher than a guy would usually wear. And last, but not least, rolling beside him was a suitcase of immense sizes, making him look only more ridiculous. He looked completely lost and it was clear that the guy had not the slightest idea of what he was getting himself into.

            Soon we found out that the second message, in the airport, was sent out by him, but it somehow got reversed. He got to the airport earlier than was scheduled and panicked right away. He started running around and asking everybody if they were with the American Hiking Society. While on his quest, he met some ladies from the Princess Cruises line and they almost convinced him to go on a cruise, instead of the volunteer vacation. Who knows, maybe poor Dacha would’ve enjoyed it more, but we, certainly, would’ve been deprived of a great share of our entertainment.

            Seeing the picture described above, Angela asked our Dacha if he had any appropriate shoes for hiking and working in the woods. Stuttering a little and stumbling over the words, with a hard Chinese accent, Dacha said:

- Yea, yea, I have my rubber boots.

            After the burst of laughter that followed this answer stopped, it became apparent that he had no back pack either. Angela told him that we would stay at the campground that night and head out to the work place only the next morning, when she would be able to bring him some backpack, so he wouldn’t have to roll his suitcase along the trail, although the latter amused everyone more.

            The person, who was supposed to meet us the campground, was an Americanized Chinese woman, named Yolk Fong. She didn’t like men with “Chinese” mentality, was very independent and liked different kinds of sports. She talked way too much, was very annoying, and even offensive at times. Dachao and she didn’t like each other right away, and none of us was very friendly with her either.


                                          Dacha Stories

Next morning Angela brought Dachao a very old and heavy backpack, with an external frame, and he started packing. Diana was sincerely trying to help him, but it was useless. His sleeping bag looked as if it were 2 heavy blankets sewn together, took up most of the space in the backpack and weighted as much as our full packs. He had only one T-shirt, and it was the one AHS sent us. For some unknown reason he requested XL, and got what he asked for. The rest of his wardrobe contained only buttoned shirts. Also, the strange Chinese man brought a huge dirty towel with him. When Diana suggested that he could take a small towel instead, he started protesting violently. In horror he yelled out:

- No, no, it’s for warmth!

            For the rest of the trip Dacha didn’t stop causing laughter, without even realizing what was going on.

            We had to hike for about two miles to our base camp, and with overfilled backpacks it was quite a challenge. Our campsite had two parts to it, within 2 minutes of each other, one being bigger than the other. Diana, Marina and I got our private campsite, since we occupied the smaller one and it had just enough space for our two tents. Venya, with his new ultra light tent, Dacha with his giant 4-person tent, the one you can get in Wall-Mart for 20$ and the rest of the crew took the bigger site. There was a bathroom halfway between the sites and a wooden cabin right across from the bathroom. The cabin had a stove and a big water filter, meant for our use. We could also store our food in the cupboards to protect it from mice (which, by the way didn’t help at all) and it would serve as a refuge in case of a strong and prolonged rain, which it eventually did, but generally it was meant for storage and maintenance use only. There was also a lake nearby, where we got the water from, occasionally took swims and did our laundry.

            That night, when almost everyone was already sleeping, Venya saw our Dacha walking back and forth on a log near the lake.

-         What are you doing, Dachao? – asked Venya.

-         I can’t go to sleep, so I’m walking to get tired. – said Dacha.  

Apparently our exhaustive hike to the lookout tower didn’t wear him out, so he was taking a walk on the log.

            Another time, Venya heard a strange buzzing noise coming from Dacha’s tent. Once he got closer, he saw Dacha standing with a mirror in one hand and electric razor in another one. When Venya asked him why all of the sudden he decided to shave in the middle of the woods, Dacha answered as if it was as clear as the sky on a sunny day.

-         Because tomorrow is a day off.

Dacha used earplugs at night, because as he explained, he didn’t like the birds singing in the morning and waking him up. He used them in Chicago as well, every night.

…Our job was to clear out the trail and widen it at places where it was getting narrow. It involved brushing, using a Pulaski, changing water bars etc. In the middle of our work day we would usually stop and have lunch, together with the local birds. They were completely unafraid and would eat apples and trail mix right from Diana’s hand! It was amazing, seeing them so close, actually feeling their touch…!

The way our Dacha worked was also pretty amusing. He was running around with loppers  lopping everything that was unfortunate enough to get between them. Once, during our work day we stopped to talk to him for a while.

-         How did you first find out about this trip and why did you decide to sign up? - asked Diana; the question that all of us couldn’t even guess the answer to.

-         I-I s-saw in newspaper… It said food was provided… I thought it’d be fun… I have three week vacation and two weeks here. – replied Dacha with what seemed to be a deep regret, hidden in the same stuttering heavy Chinese accent.

-         Did you know what you would be doing here? - continued Diana

-         I wanted to see Seattle… It said we build a bridge…

Just for the record, the description of the project said nothing about the bridge, so we never figured out where he got the idea from.

-         Do you live alone in Chicago?

-         Y-yes, yes.

-         Do you have a family?

-         Not yet.

-         Do you have a girlfriend?

-         Not yet. That’s why I came here.

We never found out whether by “here” he meant the Volunteer Vacation, or the US.

            We made a few attempts to teach him Russian and he tried to sing for us a Chinese version of “Podmoskovnye Vechera”. Here’s what we taught him:

-         Tovarisch, pochemu ne spish?

-         Ne znayu.

With his hard Chinese accent it came out very funny, especially with the serious look he had on when he tried to pronounce the Russian words. Every day he forgot what we taught before and we would start all over again…

            …Even though Diana told the story of our club and our traveling together, some people either didn’t hear it, or simply forgot. While Leonard completely disregarded that Diana told him she had two sons; and decided that Marina and I were her daughters, Dacha went even further.

- Don’t you think that Diana’s husband is a little young? - he asked Yolk Fong.

- Oh, you know her husband? -  was her surprised response.

Apparently, Dacha thought that Venia was Diana’s husband. It made a good joke, but it also gave each one of us a new family. I suddenly got a sister I never had and understanding modern parents, who got along with each other – something I could only dream of before as well.

            …Yolk Fong couldn’t believe that Dachao has been in US for 10 years, so she asked him if he really has lived here for that long.

            -Yes, but not in the mountains, I never live in the mountains, - cleared the situation for us Dacha.

            The same annoying Yolk Fong was trying to find out Dacha’s age. When the question was asked, Dacha, with a deep hurt in his voice and a full mouth of his usual overcooked pasta with jam, said:

            -You never ask a lady’s age!


                                 Night at the Look-outTower

            One night we decided to sleep up at the look-out tower, because the view from there was truly spectacular. It was located about a mile – mile and a half from our campsites, but the trail led up the steep hill. The “tower” itself was a small cabin with something that reminded two wooden beds, a broken stove and some cabinet with doubtful contents. There was also a very old guest book that we signed.

Marina and I slept in one of the “beds”, Diana took the other and Venya - the so called “balcony”, where he was joined by Stan and Andy, who also decided to spend a night there. It was very cold but also very beautiful. We got to see both the sunrise and sundown, since we slept very badly that night. Mount Rainier, with white patches of snow, rising to the crimson skies…. The sky, which was beyond any words or pictures, with the sun looking so small, but at the same time painting everything with every possible hue of red, orange and yellow… Seeing everything, the view of 360 degrees from above, and feeling at the top of the world…


                                           The Weekend Hike

            After our first workweek was over, we decided to explore the beautiful surroundings of Mount Rainier with a two day backpacking trip. Everybody else was making their own plans as well. Stan and Andy were planning on climbing the Mount Rainier over the weekend, since they’ve been preparing for this for a while and had all the equipment in the rangers’ cabin. Leonard was going to stay at the campsite, while Dacha wanted to go to the city, and Yolk Fong decided to do some day hiking in the nearby areas.

            Our trip turned out to be very interesting and diverse. It was gorgeous in the beginning; the meadows captured our sight… We even met a couple of marmots on our way. They were unbelievably cute, reminding of a mini-bear and even posed for our cameras. Venya managed to see mountain goats and chased after them with his camera, but they were too fast even for Venya.

Soon the weather begun to change… Slowly, but steadily it was getting colder as we were proceeding to higher altitudes... The sun was disappearing behind the growing clouds and the fog, at first hardly noticeable, grew denser and denser…

            The view has changed dramatically. We were supposed to see a complete view of the mountain, but through the fog we could only make out its silhouette, which eventually disappeared as well. At one point we had to hike through the snow and couldn’t find the trail in the fog. We made futile efforts to find Venya, who apparently was only a few steps ahead of us.

-         Venya, where are you? – called out Diana.

-         I’m here – answered Venya’s voice, seemingly close, but its owner was not at all visible through the opaqueness of the fog.

Finally, we somehow got through that part of the trail, which, though horrifying, was still remarkably beautiful and surreal in its mystique grayness mixed with the patches of hardened snow. As we started descending, the clouds became more and more threatening. We didn’t know how far we were from the campsite, when we stopped in front of a flat spot, so invitingly standing there, next to a creek with fresh water for the hot tea… We knew it was illegal to camp so close to the trail, but the rain was already practically tangible in the air and none of us had any rain gear, except for my rain jacket (which didn’t really protect from rain, as we found out later).  We decided to risk it and to set up our tents; and as it turned out, we did the right thing.

            The rain started almost instantly, gaining the strength with every drop… This turned out to be a bad time for Venya to find out that his new ultra light tent wasn’t a good solution for camping in the rain. While Diana’s tent held out pretty well, with only the floor being a little wet by the morning, Marina’s and Venya’s sleeping bags got completely soaked, together with everything else in their tent.

            Since Marina and Venya couldn’t find a dry spot in the tent, they decided go out and make some tea. Diana and I got a complete dinner-in-tent, which contained wraps with tuna, and for dessert – a delicates, hot tea with rice pudding. Our cooks of the night claimed that the tree they were cooking under protected them from the rain and that it was better there than in the tent. …It rained all night – on and off, the drops sounding so close, hitting the thin rainfly, and yet never actually reaching us.

            In the morning, when the rain seemed to have stopped, but the clouds and the fog have not dissipated yet, we had no choice, but to collect our wet tents the best we could and head to meet Carl who was supposed to be picking us up at the end of the trail.


                                        Stranded in the Cabin

            However, this wasn’t the end of our rainy adventures. We had one more week to go when we got back to our campsite, but we worked for two more days, at the most, when the rain stopped for the daytime. But after those two days elapsed, the rain started with a new strength, as if it were only taking breaks to recharge. It was raining non-stop, day and night. The four of us moved into the cabin and started sleeping on the wooden desks right under the roof that made up this tiny “second-floor bedroom”. Yolk Fong moved her tent into the shelter, and only the brave men stayed in their tents in the nighttime. Dacha, after having spent one night with us, moved into a tiny freezing closet, used for keeping shovels and other equipment. During the day, however, everybody got together in the cabin, cooked food and enjoyed the warmth and comfort of the stove. 

            A lot has happened during those four days in the cabin. We all noticed what a loud and distinctive voice Yolk Fong had and how much she loved to talk. While Diana and I would lie on the top and make futile efforts to read our books, she would go on non-stop about the volunteer vacation where there were only women involved and how much she hated it or about the study that she took part in, where she had to stay in an absolutely controlled room for over a month with no contact with the outside world. We all wished she went back there and wondered who she would be talking to there. To the walls, I guess, since even the most polite people stop listening after the first dozen times… Andy got Venya interested in both tree and mountain climbing. He showed him what kind of rope is used and some of the knots that are used for climbing. They even tried it out on the pole, in the middle of the cabin. Dacha tried too, but that left no comments and was beyond description.

            While being stuck in the cabin, all our activities were limited to talking, cooking, eating, reading and occasionally running to the bathroom. Dacha’s book, however, turned out to be something by Jane Austen, who puts me, personally, to sleep half through the first page. We figured he only brought a book, because the list of things to take with us that we got with the package for the volunteer vacation included a book. He also brought a portable radio, but it turned out to be almost useless, since it was able to catch only some local news station. After having listened to the weather forecast that promised “showers and thunderstorms”, but having heard “sunshine and thunderstorms”, Dacha declared with a complete assurance in his voice:

-         It will soon all be over!

On one of those ten minute breaks that the rain took to recharge, Dacha run out of the cabin, exclaiming:

-         It’s over! It’s over!

But once Venya went out to see what all the fuss was about, it was raining again, as if it never stopped.

            One of the four days, before going to sleep we were sitting next to our stove and talking to Dacha. Everybody else already left for their tents. He informed us that he actually came on the trip for one reason – the description said that the food would be provided. He got very disappointed when he found out that we had to buy our own food, even though we were getting daily compensation for it.

-         I came here to gain weight, because it said food provided… I need to gain weight… But when I was little, I was chubby; I had a lot of fresh meet – complained Dacha, pointing at his bony wrist.

He gave Diana a long, examining look and proclaimed the following:

-         You, Diana, figure not so fat, not so skinny, it’s ok.

It took us a couple of seconds to digest and comprehend this, but it made a great end of the evening and we crawled in our sleeping bags, still laughing hysterically.


                                      Seven Miles in the Rain

            After some time was spent in the cabin and it looked like the rain wasn’t going to stop anytime soon, we started thinking of calling the rangers on the radio they left us in case of an emergency. The first time we called, they said they’d try to send a car to the trailhead, but they didn’t know if it would go through, because the roads might’ve been washed out. The first attempt to get us out failed, because the car sunk in the mudslide. We were starting to get worried, because the rain wasn’t stopping, which meant the road would get only worse. On the last day the rangers told us over the radio that they would bring us out through the other side. They’d come up there and help us carry whatever they could and also lead the way.

            As we were lying on the top and only waking up, we heard Leonard’s voice calling:

-         Get off your lazy butts, they’re coming!

We got up, packed our stuff and were waiting to start yet another rainy hike. This time Diana and Venya were ready with both rain jackets and rain pants, but Marina and I… Neither of our jackets could handle the amount of water that was pouring down on us, and as for the pants, - they were soaked within the first couple of minutes. The hike out was long and exhausting. The trail continued up and down the hill for seven miles, most of which – were wet miles. Every time we stopped to catch a breath and to ask the ranger how long we had left, we remembered the story that another ranger, Luke, had told us before our weekend hike. He’d taken his seven-year old son on a long hike, and every time he would ask “Are we there yet?” - Luke would answer “Just around the corner”, the phrase that was quoted then and still is.

            We’ve never been as relieved and grateful as when we finally got to the road and saw the car. The rescue of the stranded volunteers was complete. We were drenched, worn out and had no idea where the rangers were planning to take us, but nevertheless we were eternally happy to see the car that would take us someplace dry and warm.


                                                   The Condo

            For all our sufferings the rangers treated us to a condo in the woods, which was occasionally used by some of them. It had a couple of rooms, a kitchen, a garage, and, most importantly – a shower! All of us got cleaned up and dried our stuff. Dacha, who had to hike out in his city shoes, because he left his rubber boots, which would’ve helped him, at the ranger’s station, couldn’t get them to dry. He would put them on the radiator and turn the heat up, but Andy would turn it back down every time, when Dacha didn’t see him.

            The day after our hike out everybody left, but the four of us and Dacha. We had a whole day ahead of us, because Marina was flying out the next morning and we were meeting Jim and Loretta, Diana’s friends, the next day as well. We had to kill the time somehow, so Venya decided to become our personal trainer for the day. While we were getting strong and fit, Dacha was walking around the condo, which didn’t look all that spectacular and taking pictures of it. In the meantime, we used the garage as our gym and Venya had us do push ups, crunches and we attempted to do pull-ups. Our muscles were hurting for three days after this training, because he made us do too much. Venya suggested that our dads should install a pull up bar for us, and we caught him on the word that he, being our dad has to do it.

            Marina left the next morning and went straight to her cousin’s wedding, which was the last place she wanted to be at. We met with Jim and Loretta, who promised to bring their dogs, but to mine and Venya’s disappointment, they wouldn’t fit in the car with all of us and they left them at home. We had to be satisfied only with the pictures, which were extremely cute as well.


                                        We’re Getting Spoiled

              Jim and Loretta picked us up in their car from the condo and we continued our trip, but in a completely different way. We car-camped at different campsites, swam in lakes, while Venya and Jim fished…. We saw blue jays, chipmunks and deer… All this time we were getting completely spoiled by Loretta’s cooking. In the morning we would wake up to the smell of fresh coffee, sausages, pancakes... We felt like royalty, especially when we found a great campground, where we were the only campers. There was a very nice host, with his wife, who’d give us more than enough wood for the fire every night. We had the most delicious dinner when Venya caught a fish. It tasted incredible, cooked on the glowing coals, with the mushrooms that we dried from before… We spent the rest of the trip relaxing and enjoying our last days away from Brooklyn, and we believed we deserved it after the volunteer project and the sodden hike out.

            … When I started writing this, it was just meant to record the jokes about Dachao, but I felt that too much would be left out if I stopped at that. One memory triggered another, something came back from the pictures, and here we have it: an almost full description of the last year’s Washington events….


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