Return to Burnt Hill

Return to Burnt Hill

Today I returned to Burnt Hill, a place I’ve hiked several times before and reported on previously here. This mission had three primary objectives:

  1. Get a good workout and enjoy a nice Spring day outside.
  2. Scout new shadow routes down the mountain and other points of interest.
  3. Give my new scout vest system a good field test.

The hike goes up a steep forest road to the top of the hill. After about a mile it comes to a rock quarry with a peculiar piece of artwork made out of someone’s trash. I thought this was an interesting way to turn litter into something strangely magical, so I took a picture:

Appreciating the weird magic of trash art.

At about 1.75 miles the trail levels out at a clear-cut and a nice vista of the northeastern Olympic mountains. At this point objective #1 was completed.

Performing Kuji-Kiri cuts at the clear-cut near top of the hill.

From the clear-cut I continued west down a forest road I hadn’t travelled before. I wanted to see if it could connect me to trails I had previously scouted at the base of the hill, giving me a complete shadow route from the hill to my house. The road went on for a mile, bringing more spectacular views of the Olympics to the south and the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north. At road’s end, a dirtbike/foot trail continued down the hill in the direction I wanted to go. I was hoping it would take me all the way down, but it soon started curving back up so I had no choice but to bushwhack downhill toward my destination.

Bushwhacking down the steep hillside.

After some hill scrambling I came to a stream cutting down the hillside in the direction I wanted to go and started following it. This was a mistake, as the stream soon went over a cliff and the whole area cliffed out. This reinforced two points about mountain navigation: one, water takes the fastest route downhill, not the route easiest for humans to walk; and two, when contour lines on a topographical map are closest together, travelling perpendicular to them is probably going to be difficult. In this case it was nearly impossible, so I had to skirt around the steep area and take an indirect course at an angle to the contour lines.

Streams on hillsides are good for getting a cool drink, but bad for finding a safe route down the hill!

I finally got down the hill and connected to an unmapped trail I had previously scouted. This connected to a forest service road that isn’t technically open to the public, but the Shadow Scout philosophy is that this only matters if you’re caught, which is unlikely! I avoided problems by following a path along an irrigation canal above the road that I already knew about:

Irrigation canals often have trails that make good shadow routes.

The road also went by a facility with padlocked doors that could be considered a challenge, if you’re so inclined.

Secure facilities in obscure locations are excellent places to practice lockpicking skills.

Finally the private road came to a gate that connected to a road leading back to my house, which successfully completed objective #2 for this mission. Note the striking sign on the gate; are they planning a Jurassic Park-type facility here? I will keep an eye on it.

Don’t trespass. Especially if there are dinosaurs around. Unless you’re a Shadow Scout.

As for mission objective #3: the scout vest performed very well. It sustained no damage from over a mile of sliding down steep slopes, scrambling over logs and light bushwhacking. I was able to quickly access my water pouch, filter, phone, sunglasses, snacks, gloves, map and other items without having to stop and rummage around in a pack.

All in all, a very good day of shadow scouting.

The Scout Vest

The Scout Vest

Here’s an interesting alternative to the everyday carry or bug-out bag that I’ve been experimenting with recently: the scout vest!

The scout vest contains everything I need for my everyday scouting activities.
Note the large zip pocket in the back and the thread where I removed the reflective strip.

It’s just a slightly modified, dark-colored fishing vest with its pockets loaded with my everyday scouting and survival gear. There are many fishing/travel vests available that would work for this purpose; here’s the one I’m using:

I chose the variant labelled “Cmov060-khaki” because I liked its natural green and black colors, the large zip front pockets and the mesh torso for warmer conditions. My modification was to remove the reflective strip across the lower back for greater stealth. I might also pick up the variant “Cmov050-black” for night/cold/urban scouting.

Here are two more vest options that look good:

I like the scout vest system for several reasons:

  • My scouting gear is always ready; I just put on the vest and go.
  • It has much more carrying capacity than the pockets of my normal clothes.
  • I don’t have a pack hanging off my shoulders, which can restrict movement, be uncomfortable or get lost in the field.
  • I can quickly access my gear in any situation—walking, climbing, crawling, concealed location, etc.
  • It’s more discreet than a tactical backpack; carry a rod and reel and I have a ready-made cover as a fisherman!

This vest has a lot of storage space: many large and small zipper and velcro pockets in the front, inside, and a huge zip pocket down the back. I have put most of the items in my bug-out bag (as described in this post) in the vest, including:

  • folding knife
  • 25 feet of paracord
  • pen flashlight
  • lighter and firestarter material
  • compass
  • carabiner
  • medical pack: bandages, tape, antiseptic wipes, aspirin, diarrhea pills, water purification tablets
  • compact rain/wind jacket
  • neck gaiter
  • gloves
  • baby wipes
  • lockpick set
  • smartphone
  • cash
  • energy bars
  • Sawyer Squeeze mini water filter

Other items I might include for some missions are my handgun with ammo clips, compact binoculars, puffy jacket, maps, notebook and pencil, rope and grappling hook, and mosquito netting. I could even put my hammock and straps in the back pocket if I wanted to be able to sleep out. Another option is to have a pack with my hammock, sleeping bag, extra food, clothing and other items I need for multi-day missions ready to go that I can slip on over the vest if I need it.

I haven’t fully field-tested this setup yet, but so far I like it. My only concern is that it might not hold up to heavy scouting use such as bushwhacking, rock scrambling or crawling in rough terrain. It’s not military-grade, just a cheap Korean fishing vest, so I don’t expect it to be too durable. But it’s a fun item to have in your scout arsenal, and worth considering.

Night Boat to Paris

Night Boat to Paris

The 1950s were well before my time, but it must have been a golden age for readers of paperback spy, crime and adventure fiction. That decade had so many elements that make for exciting stories: the Cold War at its most intense, the CIA and KGB waging unfettered shadow wars across the globe, the American empire rising, the British empire falling, the Mafia’s invisible empire at its peak, and thousands of veterans of World War II and Korea still young and looking for action. It’s not surprising that the decade introduced so many genre greats, like Jack Higgins, Alistair MacLean, Ian Fleming, Donald Westlake, Dan J. Marlowe and Lionel White. A more obscure author who got his start in the ’50s was Richard Jessup; I recently picked up his 1956 novel Night Boat to Paris in a lot of vintage spy paperbacks and gave it a quick read.

The novel’s protagonist is Duncan Reece, an ex-World War II British Intelligence operative who fell out of favor with the class-oriented Establishment after the war and turned to criminal work. He is approached by his old intel chief, who considers Reece the perfect man for a very sensitive mission. It seems that an ex-Nazi engineer has developed a nuclear satellite technology for the Reds, but the microfilmed blueprints have wound up in the possession of a wealthy Spaniard and a purchase has been arranged at a charity bazaar at his French villa later that month. Several intelligence agencies, most notably the Reds, are in hot pursuit of the film and are expected to be closely watching the villa. Reece’s mission is to stage a robbery at the bazaar, taking the party-goers’ valuables as well as the microfilm in order to fool the Reds into thinking it wasn’t enemy action. Reece agrees to the job for the very tidy sum in 1956 dollars of one hundred thousand, plus half the loot, an import-export license and his Scotland Yard file and fingerprint records.

Reece’s first task is to travel to France and assemble a crew for the heist. He enlists an old associate and all-around shady operator named Tookie, a desperate German gunman named Otto, a French muscle-man named Saumur, and two American mafiosi operating out of Marseilles named Gino and Marcus. There is considerable intrigue leading up to the main event, as Reece is pursued by mysterious assailants in black suits, and he suspects that one of his own men is an informant for the Reds. Several enemy operatives are killed, and there’s some interesting introspection from Reece about why he is doing this that speaks to the inner plight of the shadow warrior:

You’re a different man, Reece, from when you first started thinking for yourself. A man who has no principles, ascribing to no morality, who has perhaps had the morality knocked out of you. You’re a killer; a procurer and thief; a man who has great wit and wisdom when it comes to saving your own neck and feathering your nest. You see that the world is mad and are playing along with it.

Can such a man slip into the comfortable rut of a middle-class merchant?

Another question.

And no answer for it.

Finally the crew gets to the locale of the op and sets themselves up in a farmhouse, where they begin training for their commando-style raid on the villa. From here on out it’s a riveting thriller, as the crew, clad in identical black coveralls, berets, face paint and bandanas, assault the party with a rope ladder, grappling hook and Tommy guns, get the loot and the microfilm and try to make their escape. They get to the border and desperately try to find away across, while more men in black show up and they are forced to take drastic action in a mountain village. Conveniently, a village girl unhappy about her arranged marriage joins the crew and leads them on a secret route across the mountains. This finale is a bit less believable than the rest of the story, but it races to a suitably noir ending as the traitor is revealed and Reece makes a run for it into the shadows.

This is just the kind of novel I like: an old-school, hard-boiled adventure that combines espionage, a heist, desperate criminals and ruthless shadow operators. There’s plenty of action and intrigue, but with a more sophisticated style than you get in a typical men’s adventure novel. All in all, this was an excellent little thriller, and a glimpse back to a time when spy stories could be told in 158 pages instead of 400+, without all the bloated writing, technological gimmickry and over-the-top action that would plague the genre in later decades. I will certainly be reading more novels from this era, and can recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the early hardboiled spy work of authors like Donald Hamilton, Jack Higgins, Dan Marlowe and Edward Aarons.

Get a copy of Night Boat to Paris here.