It was our third week straight of forest fires. The Church (Frank Church Wilderness Area) was on fire. There were rumblings and whisperings about more road closures that could delay our getting to the river or even flat out prevent us from going. The air was thick with smoke. My throat and eyes hurt, I took to carrying a handkerchief with me in case the smoke particulates got REALLY bad. There was no turning back, though, if I could help it. The guests were on their way from all corners of the country and there was wilderness boating to be done.
Driving through and past Stanley, Idaho, I was grateful we had gotten this far, especially amid reports that part of Stanley was being evacuated that day. We drove along Highway 21 out of town and gazed out of the right side of the cramped truck’s cab. The wilderness was burning a few miles from the road.
A few days later, as we set up the kitchen tables at Shelf Camp on the Middle Fork Salmon, I contemplated the impressively mature and enormous spires of Yellow Pine scattered through camp. It was hard to imagine all of these incredible trees almost went up in flames like match heads. That fire was only a few years ago, in 2007, and it came within yards of one of the most incredible camps on this river.
Now I’ve heard the “Middle Fork big fire” story a few times, and I wouldn’t do justice to telling it, but let it be said that an OARS river trip was chased from this camp. If you want the full (and excitable) story, guide Nick Grimes gives a compelling recounting/reenactment. Let’s just say Mr. Nick is NOT a runner. And he was sprinting.
On a different trip earlier in the 2012 summer we stopped for lunch at Lower Yellow Pine on the Main Salmon River, just upstream of Big Mallard Rapid. As we were eating we could see fire-lit trees less than a mile downstream, moving our way. We didn’t feel in danger, but there was reverence as we watched the thickening smoke and flames while we ran the next rapid. Around the corner I saw what I’ve never seen. The forest fire here was ON the shore. There it was. Downed trees touching the water’s edge were crackling and smoking. Boat after boat passed the burning land, mouths agape as we watched Nature do her mighty thing. The only noises were the dip of oars in water, clicks of cameras, and the crackle and pop of dried foliage taking the heat. It was an astounding sight.
At camp later, after checking in with the boss via satellite phone and assuring our safety, guides and guests talked about what we had seen. Some people thought it tragic, the scorched earth and killed trees stripping the landscape of a coniferous beauty as far as one could see. While the coal-ridden landscape was indeed more monotone than we were used to, we agreed that the beauty of The Frank Church Wilderness Area was that it was managed AS a Wilderness Area. That is to say the Forest Service’s “let it burn” policy was letting Nature be natural. And that was healthy.
The Halstead Fire at its end consumed over 180,000 acres. The wildflowers will be back next year. And I am grateful to work in a wild land that is ever-changing. I’m looking forward to 2013’s season of renewal.