The contrasts are startling. Emerald green bunchgrass and bright yellow blooming arrowleaf balsamroot rise up from the nutrient-rich soils of last August-October’s Grizzly Bear Complex Fire that burned across some 83,000 acres, the majority in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness of Northeast Oregon and Southeast Washington.

Arrowleaf balsamroot flowers bloom in bodacious profusion on the slopes above Crooked Fork and the Wenaha Rivers on our weekend backpack trip, April 16-17, 2016, through a post-wildfire Wilderness.

Healing was the word of the first day, especially for three residents of Troy, Oregon, who joined our backpack party as we wound down switchbacks into the Crooked Creek tributary of the Wenaha River. Every step brought them closer to renewal after a terrifying up-close encounter with a lighting-caused wildfire that threatened their homes  by the Grande Ronde River, and the lives of firefighters, too. Everyone on our trip honored those heroes and heroines of the fires.

For those who’ve hiked, hunted, fished and rode horses through these wilds, the idea of returning to witness trees not just scorched by fire, but burned to a black crisp, might feel too heart-breaking and filled with loss.

Aerial view of the Grizzly Bear Wildfire Complex burning through the forested draws and slopes of the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness. See the Grizzly Bear Complex Facebook Page.

For La Grande’s Kent and Cilla Coe, who have backpacked almost every spring for decades here, they accepted the inevitable aftermath,  and even reveled in the rejuvenation of an ecosystem shaped by wildfires over the eons. Kent’s a botanist and Cilla a research wildlife biologist. Yes, many trees burned, but not all. Fire sometimes skipped and danced and other times roared through the crowns of trees throwing embers into the winds across creeks and rivers.

Cilla and Kent Coe are my naturalist guides to the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness.

And the land?  We witness a bountiful return of waist-high lomatium (biscuit root) and balsam root,  of tender sprouting elderberry and chokecherry beneath stark, blackened shrubs, and the kaleidoscope of spring wildflowers  on the steep meadows and below stark black tree snags: trillium, larkspur, paintbrush, bluebells, fawn lilies, phacelia, clematis, prairie star, popcorn flower, waterleaf, lupine, and the trip list goes on–fueled by the scientific botanical banter of Kent and Cilla’s vast knowledge of this place.

A delicate trillium and drooping glacier lily beam from the needle-covered soils in the wildfire’s wake.

Thanks to our Troy friends–Karen, Rene, and Lynne– who shuttled our car, we were able to hike one-way down from the Three Forks Trailhead into Crooked Creek, camp near the confluence, and backpack out the lower Wenaha River on Sunday. My friend Emelie and I shared a tent and food and found ourselves both celebrating the moment and lusting for more wilderness backpack trips within the infinitely entrancing wilds of northeast Oregon–burned and unburned.

What we all witnessed was the healing power of nature after fire.There in the Wilderness with a big “W,” the delicate soils undergo invisible and wondrous transformation. The standing dead or still living trees invite a new round of insect life and birds and animals  that are all part of this great cycle of fire and return in a land where lightning has long struck its match.

Elderberry plants sprout from the base of the burned shrubs in a floodplain by the Wenaha River.



Waterleaf or Wooly Britches or – Hydrophyllum.
White shells of land snails lay scattered in the burned forest floor. I marveled at their spiral shape that mimicked the unfolding spiral of bracken ferns and–the galaxy itself. Life–is it a circle or a spiral?
Kent explores the slopes above camp with the luxuriant greens and yellows, a striking contrast to the hazy orange needles of burned trees across the Wenaha River.


A freshly emerged Salmonfly clings to a leaf by Crooked Creek.
Life is good–my tent that I share with Emelie–looking ahead to a night of stars, a waxing moon, and the constancy of wild river music.
Indian Paintbrush
The trail winds above the Wenaha River, where a pair of kingfishers courted high above the waters.
Kent took this photo before our Troy friends hiked back out and we backpacked onwards from left to right, back row: Lynne, Karen, Cilla; front row- Marina, Rene, and Emelie.