Back to the Burn

Overcast day. Had to get out of the house and into the woods. I chose the Waptus River trail for my therapeutic hike. Good to stretch the legs and see where the snow had melted since my last trip in May. Felt much stronger.

The wind was blowing from the west, pushing clouds to the east. Up and down along the rolling grade–in the dark cedar bottoms I listened for water, and on on the rocky rises I listened for birds. One hermit thrush was calling, echoing in the treetops. The song is in a minor key descending. It could be perceived as sad and yearning, but I don’t think that is what the thrush has to say. To me the song is about summer, and sitting in a tall conifer after a long flight from Central America. It’s about hearing the sound go out and come back to one’s own ears. And maybe about connecting with others of the same kind.

I entered the burn, and spent some time remembering the Polallie fire. It all started on Labor Day, 2006. I was home canning peaches when I got the call. Within a couple hours I was in my fire clothes, flying in a helicopter to pick up John at Lemah Meadow, and then doing a recon flight with him. (Finished canning my peaches at midnight.) The next 11 or 12 days were spent hiking and being a lookout/monitor. There was the day weather, fuels and terrain came into alignment and the fire ran up a gully on Davis Peak, creating a huge smoke column. My friends who were putting up notices in the wilderness called into say ash was falling on them. There was one exciting day working with the fireline explosives crew, hunkering under the rotor wash of a heavy helicopter cooling a hot spot with water. We had to wait to finish laying out our line. Katie’s eyes were as big as saucers, and I had to feed her chocolate out of my pack to keep her calm. The eventual boom was very gratifying.

The forest is always changing–sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Life never completely disappears, even during the hottest part of a fire. The fire itself is a living thing, a force of transformation. Now this burn has been rained and snowed on for three seasons, and there is light where there used to be shade from trees. I heard woodpeckers banging away on the snags. There were patches of vegetation that hadn’t burned, some swamps with blooming salmonberry and bog orchids. Spots of green through the black and gray. The next generation of trees is coming up.

And so it goes.

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