My husband and I are camped on the wild and scenic section of the Rogue River in southern Oregon, our second night out. We arrived at this lovely riverside location in kayaks and rafts with a group of almost 30 people, including our son and his fiancée.
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Tent space is tight, so we raise our tent downstream of the crowd, next to a couple of friends who sleep out on cots.
These details are important because of what follows.
At 3 a.m. I awaken to thunder. Not loud thunder, but large. If you think of sound as filling space, this sound could fill a space as long and deep as the gorge on this river.
“Bob,” I say. “Did you hear that? We better put up the rain fly.”
He pushes himself to sitting position and looks out the tent flap. “I don’t see rain,” he says. “Let’s wait and see.” He drops back onto his air mattress.
Seconds later, lightning flashes through the tent fabric and I hear second and third claps of thunder.
We both sit up and fumble with the tent zipper, until we can finally stand outside and look around. The sky is dark. The air is cool. “No rain,” Bob says and turns back toward the tent.
Suddenly, on the upstream hill we see a dozen flashlights flick on simultaneously, as if operated by one switch. These are our fellow campers. Half a second later, I feel the first drop of rain.
A new flash of lightning illuminates our closest neighbors as they scramble, with few clothes on, to put up a tent. Bob and I try to install our rain fly, pushing and pulling but making little progress. The fly is the wrong size–designed for another tent, but we force it on anyway, anchoring it with rocks.
We have to drop to our bellies to re-enter the tent, but we make it inside before a deluge begins. The downpour lasts about 10 minutes, stops, begins again an hour later, then stops a second time.
In the morning, we awaken to bright sun, but as we crawl out of our moist tent, we hear a new sound, loud and close by.
Wumpa. Wumpa. Wumpa.
A helicopter comes into view carrying a huge water bucket. Swinging just past our camp, it descends towards the river, dips its bucket, rises again and disappears over the closest mountain. Seven minutes later, it returns. Over and over, it comes and goes.
We know this means that fire has broken out somewhere, but the air is smoke-free and there seems to be no cause for alarm. We eat breakfast while exchanging wet sleeping bag stories. Everybody is OK. Our trip continues another day and a half. In the last hours we smell a little smoke, barely noticeable, and skies are slightly hazy.
When I pull my kayak onto the final shore where vehicles are waiting to drive us back to our starting point in Galice, Ore., I hear new information.
“Sixty lightning strikes,” says a van driver. “Maybe 70.”
“Our road is open. But it almost wasn’t.”
“The ash is bad on the other side of the pass.”
I had started to gather my gear and stow things, but I stop, as if someone had suddenly applied a brake.
My companions and I, happily isolated on a beautiful river trip, are rejoining the real world now, and we learn that the real world is aflame, not where we are exactly, but close.
As we ascend the mountain pass and start down the other side, the sky darkens; smoke is everywhere. We pass devastation left by a fire 10 years ago, large swaths of land where old trees are ravaged and new ones small and spindly. When we rejoin our car in Galice, it has soot all over it and when I open the door, ash pours in.
From there, we make the long drive home to Davis, and I start following fire news on the Internet.
The situation is serious. Several fires are burning, some close to the river. Businesses in southern Oregon are struggling to stay open, resort buildings lie in the direct line of danger, roads are closed, houses are threatened, people lose jobs. For 12 days, authorities close the river.
The fire that ignited closest to us, the Windy Complex, is as of this writing, three weeks later, only 20 percent contained. Over $19 million has been spent fighting it.
The Douglas Complex, the next fire over, has cost $45 million so far, 75 percent contained.
In official language, the Oregon Department of Forestry describes problems firefighters face: “Steep and unforgiving terrain, mixing of fire and public traffic (particularly on one-lane roads), variable and unpredictable winds in the river corridor, ticks, bee stings, hazard trees, poison oak, poor air quality, aviation operations, extreme fire behavior, railroad crossings, black bears and cougars.”
Two firefighters have died.
I loved my vacation, but I think about it with complicated feelings now. My moment of bumbling in the darkness with a wrong-sized rain fly pales against the fear and destruction that must now be daily fare for the local people, probably the same ones I met in Galice.
Before all this began, they sold me a burger and poured me a beer.
Marion Franck is a columnist for the Davis Enterprise. She is a part-time resident of El Dorado County.