Where There is Smoke

No matter where you live, there is a time of year you hope is short lived. You go through the five stages of seasonal grief - lamenting its approach, raise anger over its arrival, accept (or resign) to it, pine for its end, and finally celebrate its passing. Here in the Intermountain west, and most of the west for that matter it is the haze and heat filled days of late summer fire season. Usually the latter parts of August and beginning of September, smoke from fires in surrounding states gathers and settles in the valley. The heavy haze turns the sun red, trapping the heat and stagnating the particle-heavy air making outdoor ventures pretty undesirable. 

Having reached maxed capacity on spending time inside, we headed to the high country in hopes of some reprieve. As we drove northeast towards the higher elevation mountains, the distant (at least what we could see of it) ranges did not instill confidence. Before leaving I knew there was a fire burning near where we were headed, but I held out hope that there might be a break. Turning off the main road onto the dirt forest service road, the hazy skies proved by hypothesis wrong.

It had been several years since I last spent time in this particular drainage, and as we made our way farther along, each dirt road mile revealed evidence that the surrounding hillsides had experienced a significant fire in my absence. The forest alternated between live stands and spindly remains. In several spots chutes of rock and debris culminated at the base of denuded slopes where rains scoured vegetation-less ruts. The combination of smoky skies and chard forest stands made for an eerie feeling and briefly I questioned the wisdom of camping back in a dead-end canyon. As we passed by several campsites I hoped our neighbors would adhere to the numerous signs stating the prohibition of campfires.

We found a quiet spot to camp in a stand of trees that for the most part survived the fire, most likely aided by the nearby creek. After settling in, we decided to take a short hike to a nearby lake. Given the scene as we drove in, I thought about how different everything appeared and wondered how the trails had faired through the fire. As we made our way up several switchbacks we walked through a graveyard of scorched trees, many stripped of their bark, others looking like the standing remains of a previous night’s campfire. I thought what a shame it was that a place that I remembered as being so beautiful now looked so scarred. 

Climbing higher (and breathing heavier) my brain’s pace began to slow and my vision seemed to pick up more of the details. While the obvious was the dead trees surrounding us, the more subtle was all of the undergrowth that had grown with the opening of the canopy. We often think of fire as a negative, when it is in fact an important element to many western ecosystems. Fires often clear unhealthy and dead trees. Quickly behind them comes new life and vegetation that benefits from the aftereffects. It might look unsightly at first, but deadfall provides cover for animals, enriches the soils, and creates structure in the rivers for trout. Seeing these more subtle details reveals just how resilient the landscape can be. Even trails for which I came to this drainage survive. Yes, signs may burn and some downfall may need to be removed, the underlying paths and destinations remain.

We fear fire, and rightfully so. Having once been evacuated from my home due to an impending blaze, I feel for folks in California right now. Fires today are also different than they were even 100-200 years ago. Poor land management, even poorer land-use planning, and global weirding have all combined to create “mega-fires” that are too much even for the natural ecosystem. But just as I accept the inevitability of fire season, we residents of the west must accept that fire is part of our environment. We need to look past the obvious destructive effects of fire and consider the importance it plays in the long-term health of our regions.

Me, Myself, and I

None, nada, zip, zero. That is not the number of fish I caught, it’s the number of fish I saw. It made no sense, a complete head scratcher. All the necessary elements of good trout water were there - clean mountain run-off, gravel beds, flow, bends, pools, structures…and bugs! Yet there I stood in that mountain stream literally by myself. Okay, yes there is the obvious and I freely admit I am far from a good fisherman. However, I know enough as to what makes good trout water and this was it. 

Resigned to the fact that my casts were drifting on deft waters, I got up close to the crystal clear pools most likely to contain residents. Not spooking anyone with my steps, I peered closely down into the darkest parts of the pools. There?!? Nope, just a branch getting pushed by the current. THERE! Wrong again, just the swirl of woody debris on the sandy bar. I pushed my hat back and rubbed my chin. Why the hell weren’t there any fish here? Didn’t they get the memo I came for quintessential alpine fishing? 

Turns out it was I who didn’t get the memo. 

On vacation, the water is too cold here. See you in September. 



The Green Room

“It looks so…brown”. Those were the words my mother used when she first came to visit me in Idaho. She wasn’t wrong either. September in the high desert West is well, brown (as it is most of the rest of the year). Boise receives an average of 18 inches of rain annually; the national average is 38. Despite this seemingly arid environment there is a small window of the year called spring when the hills explode with vegetation and color.

I’m an East-coaster by birth, the Garden State in fact. Like many parts of the country I grew up experiencing four seasons. As the saying goes April showers bring May flowers, and grass, and leaves, and all sorts of verdant vegetation. In the summer the forest would get so dense that you could barely see the house from the road and the driveway would turn into a green tunnel – a major selling point for my father I believe. Summer months were spent mowing grass and generally trying to beat back the landscape from reclaiming the yard. Rain showers were a frequent event and “drought” was generally a foreign concept.

For the past fifteen years I’ve resided west of the Continental Divide, mostly in what is known as the arid West. I still remember driving into the Sacramento Valley for the first time as mountain pine forests gave way to barren foothills of yellowed grass gone to hay and the hardened black oaks that seemed so sparse compared to the dense Maine woods where my drive had begun. In this new environment the number of seasons seemed to decrease from four to two. The wet season and the dry season. I quickly realized the need for irrigation as I nuked the lawn in a matter of a few hot July days. Water I learned was the lifeblood of the landscape and it came sparingly.

Over time I’ve come to realize that spring and fall still exist in the high desert, they are just more nuanced. In the Intermountain West spring is the most dramatic albeit short lived. After long months of dry seemingly dormant hills, spring always seems to make a surprise arrival. Spurred by the right amount of moisture and heat, one always seems to wake up one morning to the site of verdant green hills. First the sage begins to bloom, with bunch grasses soon to follow. Then comes the cycle of wildflowers as arrowleaf balsamroot, lupin, and bachelors button bloom adding varying colors to the green sea. As the weeks progress the grasses take their turn with wild rye and bottlebrush squirell-tail growing taller and taller. Finally without notice the rains stop, the temperatures rise, and the hills color pallet fades to gold.

The fleeting nature of spring in the West makes me appreciate it that much more. I begin to look for signs of its coming arrival. Less in anticipation of the transition from winter to summer, but for the season itself. I try my best to sleuth out its arrival by watching temperatures rise, and the snowline recede, looking between last season’s hay for signs of new sprouts. Inevitably though spring seems to arrive like Christmas – suddenly and with excitement. 

When the first days of spring do arrive and I look out the window to see those green hills, I lace up my shoes and hit the trails. I try to spend as much time as I can out there soaking up the smells of sage, the sight of a flower blanketed hill side, and the coolness of knee-high grasses. No matter how long the run or steep the ride, it’s pretty hard not to smile in your surroundings. Day after day I try and get out and enjoy the spring landscape, because without warning I know I’ll step out my front door to see hills that are, well….brown.

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