Sunday, February 21, 2016

After the fire: revisiting the Wenaha-Tucannon

This summer, several lightning fires merged into one massive wildfire that ran through the Wenaha Canyon and down into the town of Troy. Looking at the column from fifty miles away, it was impossible to believe that anything had survived.


I've spent many nights in the Wenaha. It is a good place to go when the high country remains enveloped in snow. There's a narrow window before the heat, the poison ivy and the snakes drive you out. But if you catch it on one of the good days, it's a lonesome and magical place.

So I went to see what had become of the canyon. As we hiked the trail upriver, it was immediately apparent that it has changed, if not forever, for decades. The places we used to camp are gone, full of blackened trees. The fire charged across the river and up the other side with a power that is breathtaking.

 Snow lingered on the burnt ground. Weather put this fire out, as it does most large wildfires. We ate lunch and shivered--it's still winter, after all.

All sorts of surprises show up when the underbrush is gone.
We hiked about three miles up the canyon, not wanting to turn around. What had become of the bridge at the forks, we wondered. Our flat campsite at the six mile mark? There wasn't time to find out today.


As is the nature of fire, some clumps of trees remained untouched, while whole hillsides around them were burnt. Though it's been years since I was in charge of putting out a fire, I found myself collecting clues to the puzzle: it crossed the river here and went up canyon there. The wind drove it this way. Some memories are hard to let go.

Though the canyon is forever changed, the bones are still there. It's still beautiful, still lonesome, still magical. A fire doesn't change that about a place. A fire just adds to the story. I look forward to watching the canyon come back to life.

11 comments:

  1. A year or two after the fire I think the burned areas are fascinating places to visit. (Or maybe it's just me!)

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    1. Not just you..I feel the same way. There will likely be hordes of morel seekers this spring too.

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  2. I visited this area a few years ago, starting from up north, coming in via Pomery (as I remember) and starting the hike near Diamond Peak, 4th of July weekend.

    It was a lovely area to see, though I got covered with ticks on the way south to the river. It was kind of neat to see a sign on the trail welcoming me to Oregon. When I hit a confluence of rivers I turned right and there were no more ticks. After I removed three of them before going to bed the first night. (I had also found one poking into the inside of my hat brim, so I was running my fingers through my hair all night. Fun!)

    The next day I knew I was in Snakeland, and wherever the trail was lined with brush I walked heavily, and then... And then, mid-stride, I looked down and saw a snake. My left foot was in the air, my right foot was on the trail, and the snake was stretched fully across the trail, headed from one side to the other. Its body passed within a half inch of my right toe, but I wasn't doing anything to annoy it, further, and everyone (the snake and I) completed the day happily. Maybe if I hadn't been stomping along the snake wouldn't have bolted. Well hey.

    Over the next two days I saw some of the highlands and the balds out there, and cruised by Oregon Butte, which was nice too. And I'd like to get back there, outside of snake season, tick season, poison ivy season, hunting season, and winter. If possible.

    Overall, the worst encounter I had was with a guy on horseback who was not at all pleasant in any way. I should have given him my ticks.

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    1. Did someone pick you up on the other end? I've never gotten beyond Fairview Bar which is ten miles in from the Oregon side (Troy). I'd like to hike through. But not sure about the ticks. I haven't gotten them in the Wenaha, but have definitely found them elsewhere. They are worse than snakes! I once stepped on a rattlesnake, and it must have been sleeping because it just kind of stumbled away. I didn't even realize until my friend said, "You just stepped on a snake!"

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  3. You'll be walking through some hot areas on your section hike this summer in northern California. I thought it was spooky and interesting, but made me sad also.

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    1. I am a fan of fire, unless it is human caused, then I get mad. Although it is so hard to separate what would be "normal" fire out from where we have messed with the environment so much that it isn't normal anymore. I'm not sure we can really say with certainty, although fires now seem way bigger and more often than when I first started fighting them. The most interesting so far was the Mount Adams area--definitely scorched but such a beautiful lupine crop that year.

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  4. One thing for sure, the wild flowers should be plentiful!!

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    1. Yes, I did not see any but it might be a little early. Maybe once it warms past 40 degrees.

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  5. After fire here in the northwoods, we often get blueberry crops. Rafting the Salmon and Snake, saw burned areas next to unburned....the patterns are intriging.

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    1. They mostly let the fires burn in the wilderness part of the Wenaha and focused on saving the houses near Troy. Which makes it a lot less artificial to look at and really see what the fire did.

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    2. From what I read, they did a wonderful job of saving houses and ranches near Troy, without endangering the firefighters.

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