I walked in the burn for most of the day, scooping dirt and rocks out of the drainage ditches on the trail. It’s been two years since the Table Mountain fire and I’ve been curious to see how life is changing there. Blackened bark is sloughing away from the fire-killed trees, and fast-growing pioneer plants like fireweed are making their way through the scorched soil.
As I descended from the basalt rim into Drop Creek, I heard the high-pitched bugling of elk. When the western larches turn yellow, bull elk transform into territorial competitive creatures, so unlike their summer selves, hanging out with the other guys in small bachelor herds. It’s breeding season and they stake their claim to groups of females by loudly challenging each other and fighting. The bugling is not a noble fanfare, but an eerie whistling squeal that echoes through the conifers. At lunchtime I hunkered on a ridge and watched a group of cows and calves grazing in an unburned patch of trees and meadow. They were undisturbed by the bellowing and bugling. I never saw the bull except for a set of dark legs amidst the tree trunks. He roared like a sea monster, grunted, and thrashed his antlers when he heard another bull in the draw above him. Yet another answered from the south. If I hadn’t known what they were, I would have imagined big scary beasts snarling at each other. I did wonder how aggressive a riled-up elk might be toward a human and was prepared to wave my shovel in his face. But the cows heard my boots clattering on the rocks and melted away. He seemed to stand his ground for a few minutes, waiting for me to answer his challenge. When I didn’t, he drifted off behind the cows.
The trail was filled with their tracks, and they wandered through the bare ground among the black trees. Without undergrowth, the structure of tree roots is visible. I am fascinated by how they radiate out and grip the earth. I pick up pieces of charcoal, promising myself that I will make drawings of these tree roots.
Along with the elk tracks, I see that a large black bear has also walked on the trail. Their front and back paws are different, much like our hands and feet are different. The back paws make prints much like human feet, with toes spread. I like knowing that bears walk here.
Everything I knew about this place has changed. I’ve worked on these trails for many years, and even explored them on my own time. The fire wiped out familiar landmarks and opened up vistas. I can see ridges and meadows that used to be hidden by green trees. It’s familiar and strange at the same time. Wildfires are hard on trails, destabilizing soil and exposing them to weather and erosion. When the dead trees fall, they tangle across the path. I cut 6 or 7 with my hand saw but there will be many more in years to come.
By late afternoon I was climbing up the Owl Creek trail to where a crew mate left the truck. The sun was in my eyes. It is moving south with the season, setting earlier. The long slanting light brightened the intensely burned forest, and anything green sparkled like a jewel in the ash. The first seedling I saw was a spruce, a bottle brush of needles an inch and a half high. Then the lodgepole pines appeared. The more I looked, the more of them I saw and could not resist framing them in the camera. The light was glowing, the shadows crisp. Some moments insist upon being savored.
At the end of the day, my mind was full of yellow larches and elk moving, of blackened trees and scraps of green life and the sky and sun. Wonderments, all of them.