A healthy imagination and a love of the natural world are personality traits that came in handy for my partner and me on a recent six-day, 1,040-mile road trip through Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
We traced the trail of the Lewis and Clark Expedition along the Columbia River; hiked through a canyon near Wallace, Idaho, scorched by a forest fire of epic proportions 100 years ago this summer; and stood at the base of what was once an ice dam that held back the ice age waters of glacial Lake Missoula.
For the second consecutive summer, we were fortunate to spend three action-packed days with Steve and Sandy Wall, who split their retired time between their home in Olympia and their condo on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille in East Hope, Idaho.
All four of us have read “The Big Burn” by Seattle-based author and journalist Timothy Egan. In his latest book, Egan chronicled the Big Burn of 1910, the largest forest fire in American history, burning 5 million acres of national forest land, including 2.5 million acres in Idaho, Montana and North Dakota.
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Natural disasters often breed heroes and acts of selfless courage. The Big Burn, which culminated in a two-day firestorm Aug. 20-21, was no exception.
One such hero was U.S. Forest Service ranger Ed Pulaski. The Wallace, Idaho-based ranger was leading a weary, terrified band of 45 firefighters in retreat down the west fork of Placer Creek on Aug. 20 when the fire blew up all around them and the winds began to howl, dashing all hopes of reaching Wallace, two miles away.
Familiar with the terrain, Pulaski ordered all the men, along with two horses, into a mining tunnel next to the creek with just moments to spare. All but six men and the horses survived the night from hell, including a badly burned and blinded Pulaski, who stood guard near the exposed tunnel entry until he passed out from smoke inhalation, pain and exhaustion.
The next morning, the survivors stumbled and crawled down a trail covered with tangled, smoldering trees to Wallace, which was gutted by the fire.
We hiked that same Placer Creek trail the other day, awestruck by what it must have been like in that narrow, steep-sloped canyon when it was engulfed in flames and whipped by winds of 80 mph.
The trail to the tunnel is adorned with interpretive signs this summer for a ceremony Aug. 20-21 to honor Pulaski and his fellow firefighters. Many include excerpts from Pulaski’s reluctant account of those days of horror that left him scarred and partially blinded for life.
He likened the roar of the fire to the sound of 1,000 freight trains. I can’t get that image out of my head.
Hiking the trail was a somber experience that left us reflecting on the power of both the human spirit and the forces of nature. We especially liked the pair of firefighting tools mounted at each sign. The combo ax and mattock is named pulaski after the man who invented the tool while tinkering in his blacksmith shop. They’re still used by firefighters to cut wood and scrape fire lines.
The next day we launched the Walls’ canoe and two kayaks into the mouth of the Clark Fork River. Pouring out of mountainous western Montana, the Clark Fork is the largest source of water entering Lake Pend Oreille.
The river mouth is a broad basin filled with side channels and sloughs ideal for paddling a kayak or canoe. Passing under an osprey nest, we saw five shrieking ospreys engaged in aerial aerobics. My guess? We witnessed two adults teaching their three young to fly and search for prey.
The main stem of the river was running swiftly, filled with spring runoff and fortified by an afternoon release from the nearby Cabinet Gorge Dam.
Later that day we drove up to the dam for a look at one of the Northwest’s most amazing geologic sites.
During the last ice age, an ice dam formed some 4,500 feet high in the gorge, impounding Lake Missoula, which stretched to central Montana.
The ice dam broke and reformed dozens of times, releasing catastrophic floods – walls of water racing 60 mph that splashed across Eastern Washington, coursed down the Columbia River and spilled into both the Pacific Ocean and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Again, we unleashed our imaginations and let our minds race down the river and back in time.
Later that night Sandy and I did a little online research and discovered that the Clark Fork was running about 64,000 cubic feet per second when we were paddling near the river’s mouth. Anything above 52,000 cfs can pose a challenge to canoeists and kayakers. No wonder we were overmatched.
I end this abbreviated account of our trip by mentioning an encounter with a Western skink during a hike on Eagle Creek in the Columbia River Gorge. This particular ground lizard had a bright blue tail typical of juveniles. We watched with interest as the colorful creature showered in a small waterfall that plunged from a basalt cliff next to the trail.
We tried to share our excitement with a passing hiker, but he barely took notice of the lizard. He seemed detached and disinterested. I’m not quite sure what drew him to the trail.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org