Heard around the West


Firefighters in the West battle extreme heat, unpredictable winds that can send wildfire racing up draws and endless hours on a fire line, but fish falling from the sky? It happened in Libby, Mont., reports Kevin Cardwell, who says the event will enter Forest Service firefighting lore. The incident occurred Aug. 17 as Todd Murray was loading equipment into a fire truck. On his head he wore a ball cap; a hard hat would have been more useful. Cardwell says that Murray recalls hearing a swooshing sound immediately followed by a bonk on his forehead. Stunned, Murray heard screeching noises and then he saw shadows darting across the ground around him. The real surprise was seeing a sucker fish at his feet, the 2-1/2-pound, 18-inch-long prize that three birds had been fighting over in the air above his head. Apparently an osprey scooped up the fish from a stream but couldn't hold on to it during a dogfight with two bald eagles. Cardwell figures a mature eagle was teaching its fledgling how to steal a meal, and it succeeded - until it dropped the fish. Though smacked in the head, Murray was not seriously injured. And he declined to fill out an accident report.

Richy-riches live in tract mansions along Seattle's Lake Washington, and you'd think they have the world by the tail, or something. What they have in abundance is goose poop - lots of goose poop on their lawns, and no matter what Microsoft honchos like Bill Gates do, flocks of Canada geese shrug and waddle back to their spacious digs. Even one goose can do damage, reports the Wall Street Journal, since one plump bird deposits up to three pounds of fresh manure every day. A variety of methods have been tried to deter the geese and encourage their rightful migration; none have yet worked. They include spraying evil-tasting liquid over the grass, shooting off a flare gun, setting up fake eagles that flap in the wind, paying "a kid to go down every couple of hours to scare them," and hiring a woman for $30,000 a year to herd the geese off the lawns with her trained sheepdogs. The dogs do their job just fine, but the geese aren't stupid: "It's sort of like when the cops show up - the crowd disperses," says the dogs' owner, Lynn Kalnoski. This year, the federal government got permission to thin the Canada goose population by 4,200 birds, a "lethal control" measure that sparked a pro-goose backlash from animal-rights activists. While people on both sides of the issue are becoming passionate, homeowners say they just want the defecating geese anywhere but out their front doors. A flock "can take a lawn that is ready for my kid's 16th birthday party and destroy it, to the point where you can't walk on it," mourns a venture capitalist.

Drag queens in the West have come out of the closet. Idaho Falls experienced its first "drag queen invasion" on Sept. 10, reports the Post Register, when five male members of the lip-synch group Charley's Angels hung out on a busy street corner and waved to passersby. Promoting the town's first diva show set for Nov. 16, the guys were probably overdressed for the occasion, sporting spike heels, "enough makeup to cover a small building," big wigs and sequined dresses. The quasi-gals almost caused the gawking driver of a red pickup to crash, while some women were envious, wondering "how men could have such great-looking legs." The queens - Spyke Naugahyde, Cassie St. John, Brandie LaCour, Velvet Naugahyde (no relation to Spyke), and Dizzy Skyscraper - will donate the proceeds from their show to the Idaho AIDS Coalition.

Ah, the power of locals when they get their dander up. An Aspen, Colo., group calling itself "Free the Bells" has persuaded the U.S. Forest Service that its new bathroom lacks aesthetic appeal and needs a major makeover (HCN, 8/27/01: Heard around the West). The structure resembles a cave covered by dirt, grasses and boulders and has been called nasty names by critics. "The Flintstones' outhouse" is a popular pejorative, as is "contemporary bomb shelter" and "New West bunker." District Ranger Jim Upchurch, who worked with residents on alternatives for a redesign, agreed, saying that the more than 200,000 people who visit the Maroon Bells deserve a bathroom that "fits the landscape and does not detract from the experience." In the works: A scaled-down outhouse that neither blocks the view nor makes an architectural statement.

It's a crowded field of seven candidates for mayor in Albuquerque, N.M., and maybe this explains the irritability of the current mayor, Jim Baca, who briefly headed up the Bureau of Land Management under President Clinton. After wanna-be mayor Bob Schwartz, a former district attorney with a full head of hair, labeled recent crime statistics for the city as "an abomination," Baca snapped back, " I think your hairdo is the abomination." The comment drew boos, reports the weekly Alibi.

We're still puzzling over why the nonprofit group called DUG, Denver Urban Gardens, chose pumpkins instead of the far more prolific zucchinis to hurl into the great beyond. Nonetheless, the Jack-O-Launch contest coming up Oct. 13 sounds like a blast. Participants are invited to design and build medieval-style catapults to launch their pumpkins. Pumpkin hurling has come a huge distance since the first person tossed one 50 feet in 1986. By 1989, organizers say, giant slings were flinging pumpkins more than 600 feet; by 1994, the first serious air cannon appeared, which propelled a pumpkin more than 2,500 feet. A team in Illinois holds the world record, thanks to their 18-ton cannon mounted on an old cement mixer. Named the Aludium Q36 Pumpkin Modulator, it set the record in 1997 by sending a squash 2,765 feet. The Denver area lacks enough space for setting distance records, say DUG organizers, who have experienced some complaints from neighbors opposed to incoming squash. Contest rules stipulate that judges will limit distance while also looking for team spirit and presentation. Dug.org on the Web tells all for pumpkin warriors.

Announcing your strategy is not always the best policy. When police in Jackson, Wyo., stopped to talk to the driver of a car stuck in a ditch near a bar, reports the Jackson Hole News, the driver said: "I haven't been drinking anything because that's the answer I need to tell you." When officers looked doubtful, the man tried another excuse: His dog had been driving. The man, not the dog, was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.

It's a good guess that Interior Secretary Gale Norton was less than thrilled with her staff's thoroughness after she publicly labeled one of the nation's first landfill's "historic." Her designation put the old dump in Fresno, Calif., on a par with a building as grand and nationally significant as Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Then came the fallout: This particular landfill remains a toxic mess of crankcase oil and paint solvents. Norton yanked the historic moniker a day later, leaving the dump with only its 1989 title of Superfund site, worthy of a $23 million cleanup. The 140-acre dump was never outfitted with a liner, reports Knight Ridder News Service, and its poisons have been leaking into the ground for 66 years.

Heard around the West invites readers to get involved in the column. Send any tidbits that merit sharing - small-town newspaper clips, personal anecdotes, relevant bumper sticker slogans. The definition remains loose. Heard, HCN, Box 1090, Paonia, CO 81428 or [email protected]

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