Sunday, August 22, 2010

1910 Fire Anniversary

Having grown up in northern Idaho, I am well aware of the devastating fires of 1910 that burned 3 million acres of forest in Idaho, Montana and Washington over a 3 day period in August. This weekend marked the 100 year anniversary of what is sometimes called The Big Burn, and my hometown commemorated it with the unveiling of a memorial to the fire fighters who lost their lives fighting it. But the real reason I traveled to Wallace was to hike the newly refurbished trail to the mining tunnel where Ed Pulaski and his crew rode out the fire and lived to tell about it.

The Pulaski Tunnel Trail follows the West Fork of Placer Creek up a narrow canyon for 2 miles, gaining about 1000 feet in elevation in the process. I spent many hours of my youth hiking up old logging roads and scrambling up game trails in these mountains, but I'm no longer a youth, and haven't done much hiking of even modest trails for quite awhile. The length of the hike didn't worry me, but that elevation rise did. This benign start to the hike didn't fool me for a minute.

As I looked up the canyon, I was reminded of the prevalence of tall cottonwoods along the streams here.

And how tenacious the trees can be as they cling to near vertical slopes.

The narrow canyons are often shady the bulk of the day - perfect for lush ferns along the creek.

I was hoping to see lots of wildflowers, but there weren't many - the first open area along the trail sported these.

It wasn't long before the trail steepened. It wasn't long until I started to doubt I had the stamina to make it much past 1/2 a mile! Am I that out of shape, or could I still be recovering from the effects of that virus back in March. Yeah, that's it - the virus - that's the story I'm sticking with. A woman jogging back down the trail asked if I had any sugar in my pack - her uncle was up ahead and having "blood sugar issues." I didn't want to admit I was having issues of my own, so assured her I'd forge ahead and share a nutroll with him while she continued to her car. We conveniently found each other where there was a bench, and sat for a bit. Lingering to make sure he had sufficiently recovered was a good excuse to linger to make sure I had sufficiently recovered. With his encouragement, I decided to push on at least to the mile mark.

And here it is. They have thoughtfully placed markers every quarter mile which was very helpful in gauging one's progress and ability to make it to the top.

I don't know the elevation, but knew I was getting up a ways when I spotted these Indian Paintbrush - these bring back some great childhood memories.

There are still charred trees from that fire to be seen, this one right next to the trail, and looming quite tall.

The trail has climbed high enough to start getting some views, though I have to admit, no sweeping panoramas. Most places the canyon is so narrow one could easily lob a rock from one side to the other. The forests have grown back thick, these firs tall. There are the occasional open spots like the one on top of the mountain here. We could see one from our house and would watch elk through binoculars as they grazed or bedded down in the sun. The only wildlife I saw this day was a squirrel, and lots of butterflies.

The last part of the trail was very steep, but finally leveled out to reveal this encouraging sign.

And yes, I'd made it! All along the trail are signs like these, telling the history of the fire and Ed Pulaski in particular.

From the vantage point of the trail, one looks down at the mine tunnel opening, the small creek which afforded no shelter running right in front of it, again, a stone's throw from one side of the canyon to the other. It's not difficult to imagine the fires consuming trees on either side, acting like a chimney, and no escape for man or animal trapped there. Even more amazing to me than their survival in the cave is their trek back down that narrow canyon after the fires had died down. If you've seen pictures of the trees downed when Mt St Helen erupted, you have a good idea of what this area looked like. But add to the jumble of fallen trees blocking the way the fact that everything was still quite hot and the men's shoes already had the soles burned off. Most had bad burns, some were blinded. They walked three miles back to Wallace in that condition.

But for me, here's the confirmation that I had hiked the 2 miles up. What with my lallygagging , picture taking and frequent rest stops, it took me about an hour and a half - more than I'd estimated.

And my trip back down the canyon would be easy in comparison to Ed Pulaski's crew.

Although it was not all downhill. There are places where the trail does a bit of a roller coaster, so there were a few steep inclines on the way down, but nothing like the trek up.

You always see different things on the way down. I spotted these very tall snags which may or may not be from the 1910 fire. They were like spires.

One was very charred in the middle.

Every now and then, you can spot a rock outcropping.

The water in this creek is so clear you can barely see it in the photo - just beautiful.

A view down the canyon towards the trailhead.

Another view of the creek - brushed in for sure.

And look what I found as I neared the trailhead. This woman has the right idea! She knew she physically could not hike far up the trail, so sent her party along, grabbed a book (on the 1910 fire of course) and found this log to settle in on. She's also a native of Wallace, though lives in Montana now. Maiden name Nancy Horne and graduated a year behind my older brother. We shared stories of teachers we had in common.

By the time I headed down, a lot more people were on the trail, and I did even more lallygagging and picture taking than I did on the way up. Thus, it took me almost as long to get down as it did to get up. It was fun, though, to chat and find out each person's connection to the area, share my own. I was pooped, my feet sore, and was really wishing I didn't have a 2 hour drive home...


June said...

I read a book about the Lochsa River (is my spelling correct) and this fire was mentioned as having set the rules for forest fire fighting for the next, umm, 80 years -- something like, no fire should burn more than 10 hours. Which allowed the forest to accumulate debris and the fires to go wildly out of control if they weren't instantly spotted. Now "controlled" burns are the solution that, it is hoped, will keep the enormous contemporary fires from gaining such strength. Strange, how history works.

Also strange how our bodies change while our minds remain behind:-)

The Idaho Beauty said...

Right you are on all counts, June. I didn't hang around for the commemoration ceremony but I understand the mayor expressed his concerns that Wallace could be victim to another big burn. He thinks some radical selective thinning needs doing now, and by the looks of the mountains surrounding the town, cutting has already begun. I hate the look logging leaves, but he is right about how quickly a fire would move down those canyons and through Wallace again.

I swear I am 40, btw, no matter what my body thinks...

Amanda said...

What a lovely enlightening post. Thank you so much for sharing.