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.
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.
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.
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.
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.