Monday, May 23, 2011

Trail Shaman

Spent a long weekend at Base Camp Juan from May 18-22; the focus of the trip was to help coordinate a "retirement party" for longtime friend and fellow wilderness stranger Chuck Ferguson, who was "packing" it in after 37 years as a seasonal U.S. Forest Service employee, mostly on trails in the wilderness of the North Cascades.

Chuck has acquired a number of nicknames over the years; some of them are even printable in a family newspaper. I've always known him as "Chuck," but he also responds to "Charlie," "Pappy," "Pa" and "Pappa Smurf." So in honor of Charles Ferguson, my co-conspirators and I have come up with the "Top Ten Reasons Why Chuck Is Retiring From The U.S. Forest Service After 37 Years As A Seasonal Employee."

Reason #10 -- No more air tanker retardant showers (above, dropping its fire-stifling red chemical on a conflagration caused by a lightning bust up the Wenatchee River in Tumwater Canyon near Leavenworth).

As you might expect just because you work on trail crew doesn't mean you're going to escape the occasional forest fire detail. And you thought trail crew was hard, dirty -- indeed, miserable -- work.

Reason #9 -- He ran out of new ideas for middle names for Bob Cline, our trusty packer. (I lost count at 15 new middle names for our resident mule skinner at Lake Wenatchee Ranger Station.)

Because Bob Cline was the one who usually packed us in on some of more challenging backcountry work sessions, he'd get the rap for our misery. Every time we encountered adversity -- usually weather related or equipment malfunctions, we would come up with a new middle name for our esteemed packer: Bob "Clyde, Simon, Bartholomew, Beauregard, Leroy, Gus, Washington...." Cline!

Reason #8 -- He finally grew tired of refried bean burritos (above) on the last night out on a ten-day trip in the backcountry.

Oh, the dreaded last night out on an extended gypsy tour or bridge-building junket deep in the Glacier Peak Wilderness! That last night's meal as a "let's use up whatever we have left in the food box" burrito.

Reason #7 -- He'd better get out while the gettin' is good.

If the government shutdown wasn't enough reason to skeedaddle, Chuck now had two reasons to get out while the gettin' is good: he wanted to party before the purported rapture on May 21.

Reason #6 -- He heard this summer's trail crew would be a reunion tour featuring some of the original band members (above).

The only thing that scared Chuck more than a sasquatch, grizzly bear, cougar or any other wild beast in the wilderness were the wild and crazy beasts on his own crew.

Reason #5 -- He developed a successful new consulting business: donkey whisperer.

You can't work with horses, mules and burros deep in the backcountry unless you know how to speak their lingo, and Chuck is one of the best in the business.

Reason #4 -- He has a new position as Chief Shaman and Spiritual Healer for the Inter-Galactic Legion of Owls (above), a fraternal organization of wilderness strangers.

As many of his friends already know, Chuck is a very centered, spiritual guy. In fact, many in his odd assortment of kooky cohorts consider him to be their guru, a shaman of sorts.

Reason #3 -- He learned he'd have to rebuild the footbridges up the White River in the Glacier Peak Wilderness this summer.

The job assignment that would strike fear and loathing in any trail crew member: a month or two building footbridges up the White River, where the black flies are so thick that you can't help but swallow a few when you inhale.

Reason #2 -- Chuck wanted Roger Ross to have to choose between his retirement party and the Royal Wedding.

Turns out, Roger (left) was able to make an appearance at both the Royal Wedding and Chuck's retirement party.

Cute dress, Rog. We're absolutely sure that Queen Elizabeth was duly impressed. Will you be auctioning it off for charity like Princess Beatrice's wedding bonnet?

And now (drum roll, please), the number one reason why Chuck is finally retiring from the Forest Service after 37 years as a seasonal employee: no more district orientation meetings.

Are there other reasons? Could it be that he wants to spend more time sucking tall cool ones by the fire with Roger Wallace, engaging in esoteric banter with Doug (Dog) Baldwin, enjoying long hikes in the woods with Frank Czubiak, hanging out with his assortment of kooky friends, or perhaps just meditating on the wonders of nature?

In the final analysis, the correct answer is probably "all of the above."

Tip of the hat to Heather and Patrick Murphy for hosting Chuck's party. Everyone had a great time walking down memory lane with Chuck and Jackie, and the food was fantastic. His supervisors at the Wenatchee River Ranger District, Bob Stoehr and Rich Haydon, presented Chuck with a plaque signed by the Regional Forester based in Portland and a classic USFS blanket for his years of dedicated service. Happy trails, Chuck!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

You Say You Want A Revolution?

Traveled north to my hometown on May 10-11 for the "premier professional development opportunity for communicators in the Portland metropolitan area since 1996."

With social media increasingly taking center stage in announcing breaking news -- Osama Bin Laden's death was reported via Twitter, scooping all the major news organizations -- this year's PDX Communicators Conference was particularly salient. Indeed, social media is playing a key role in revolutions throughout the "cradle of civilization," with uprisings in Egypt, Yemen, Syria and even in Libya.

The conference theme of "Communicating in a Changing World" focused on delivering key messages using social media and measuring its effectiveness. This year's confab, sponsored by the PRSA Portland Metro Chapter and the Oregon-Columbia Chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators, included three keynoters and various and sundry breakout sessions.

Jeanette Gibson, Director of Social Marketing for Cisco Systems, said that business-to-business communication trends are the ones to watch in 2011. Participatory blogs are working particularly well because customers and employees feel involved in "meaningful engagement."

Why participatory blogs? To "create conversations," providing an opportunity to listen and test ideas while being open and transparent. "Ideas can come from anywhere," she reminded the audience. My takeaway? Use some of those ideas.

Katie Payne of KD Payne and Partners, in discussing "How to Measure What Matters," said the "main reason to measure (the effectiveness of communications) is not to reward for success or punish for failure, but to determine from research whether a program should be continued, revised or dropped in favor of another approach."

Although some may use website hits to measure communications effectiveness, she joked that keeping a count of "hits" is "How Idiots Track Success." PR practitioners need to measure outcomes not output: "It's not how many you've reached," she offered, "but how many have responded" to your communication efforts.

Michael Pranikoff, Global Director of Emerging Media for PR Newswire, is always an insightful and entertaining keynoter. In discussing the challenge of managing communications chaos -- with different messages for different audiences changing in real time -- communications professionals must learn to adapt and adopt with agility: "if content is King, then context is The Almighty" when communicating with target audiences, he noted wryly.

The breakout session of note was Mark Ivey, former bureau chief and senior writer at BusinessWeek and national media spokesman at Intel, who discussed "Seven Reasons Your Content Is Killing Your Business."

Among the more prominent of the seven reasons why your digital content may be floundering is that you may lack clear goals or you're not listening to your audience. His recommendations: create digital content that is consistently engaging, dynamic and relevant (read: not boring) and use free listening tools available such as Google Reader, Twitter Search and IceRocket.

At the end of the conference, sensing that rush hour traffic was at its peak, I remained for the social hour and raffle. Reconnected with some of my PRSA cronies and former students, and was one digit away from a relaxing weekend at a guest house in Yachats. Unfortunately, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Windows Of Opportunity

As we approach the end of the school year, both my j-school students (above) and I find ourselves in oddly similar circumstances, despite the difference in age, interests and perspective: we're all approaching one of those inimitable "windows of opportunity."

In class, we've discussed these extraordinary points in time -- the seminal moments in our lives when anything and everything seems possible. Despite what you may see or hear in the media, this celestial alignment is not as common as you might think.

From the time you arrive on this planet through high school, the first 18 years or so, you're on the educational track. At this point, you come face to face with your first window of opportunity. Following graduation (or not) from high school, you have a number of options.

If you're well-heeled, you can pursue your passion, whether it's kayaking in Sri Lanka or mountaineering in Bhutan. If not, you can defer your window of opportunity by spending the next several years in college, or the military. If you're really desperate, the French foreign legion is always an option.

Or you can delve into the working world. If that's the case, we'll catch you on the flip side. Short of winning the lottery, your next window will appear in about 40 years. Like I said, these windows of opportunity are rather infrequent, to say the least.

For my students, who will soon graduate from the University of Oregon SOJC, this is a heady time, full of possibilities.

Internship opportunity in Washington, D.C.? Why not? Study abroad adventure in Chile? Absolutely. Teach English in South Korea for a year? You betcha!

For me, the situation is much the same now that I'm "semi-retired": another window of opportunity awaits. I'll be off to Germany right after graduation for a tour of Bavaria with my daughter Gina, followed by a summer in the backcountry of the North Cascades.

One of many definitions of "window of opportunity" is this: "a short period of time during which an opportunity must be acted on or missed." In other words, it's now or never, for both me and my students (below, signaling the number one ranked college football team in the country at the time, the University of Oregon Ducks).

The portal to our next great adventure is nigh, and we're all poised to give the command: "open sesame!"