2005 was an exceptionally difficult year. Mom and Dad are getting older and are demanding more attention. That translates into less time for backpacking. Search and Rescue and family responsibilities took their time as well. I did however get to go into a place “and time” few have been. I feel fortunate for the opportunity to see something I would not have been able too. It was due to the fact we had a horrific fire here on the Rogue River down stream from where I live near a place called Marial. The Blossom Complex Fire took its time to really get going and gave the Forestry a chance to get the manpower and equipment to this fire in a timely fashion and be ready for the fight. Search and Rescue was called to man a position on the river and keep boaters off of about 30 miles of the wild and scenic river. That is something that had not been done for over 40 years (close the river).
Every year during the summer rafters who want to travel that part of the river apply for a permit. They let some 800 boaters per day on the river. Good for the rafters. For me personally it makes for a blast of color and noise that is nonstop, it emanates up from the river. The trail through this part of the country follows the river, and is called the Rogue River Trail. I was called and tasked with my partner to close the trail to hikers and get them to leave because the fire was about to blow up. We were trucked to Marial, a three hour ride, on a one lane gravel road. I am not a good passenger. Our driver was intent on driving on the inside of the curves in the road, that put us in direct path for a head on, this was the start of the adventure. Then the closer we came to our destination the smokier it got and the more fire we saw. At the fire camp dinner was served and we did not pass on the opportunity be fed lasagna from a five gallon plastic pail. We ate, and were glad for it, as it was good. The mosquitoes were as thick as the smoke. I thought they would not like smoke, but it did not slow them down. They drank their fill till we were sprayed with 97% deet.
We were to sleep the night here at Marial and hit the trail at first light and make sure the trail was devoid of hikers. We noticed a very nice piece of grass about half a mile back down the road at “The River Ranch” a historical site that is run by the forestry, that was to be camp for us. We had our hasty packs good for three days. So after dinner we went back there. It was about 9:00 now and we needed to sleep for tomorrow was to be a hectic day. We found a nice spot to put up our tents. My partner Ruth is an expierinced member of the Mountain Rescue Unit and she went to work getting her tent set. I got my gear and set up my spot as well. We got into the tents and shut out our headlamps. That’s when I noticed the ridge above us was on fire. “Oh my” I said, not really but that will suffice for here. And we were mesmerized by the falling cinders all a glow. Every so often a tree would just explode into a flare of light that you could read by, it lasted only a few seconds then it would shower down in a cascade of fire fall. Near by trees that had burned through at the base would crash to the ground. It had been quite a day so far. Even with all of this spectacle, I fell asleep.
I was awakened by Ruth, screaming, something. I was confused and could not really be sure of what she said. I knew we were under attack. An adrenalin rush the likes of witch I had not had for many years moved me. Then I knew, shush shush tata tat tat ta tat shush shush shush and I was up and out of the tent. I yelled to Ruth to grab one of the automatic sprinklers that was assaulting us and I grabbed the one closest to me. There were maybe ten of them but only two were hitting us and we had them now by the throat. I rotated the one I was holding so it had to make 350 degrees to get pointing back to my tent again. I then took off on a run toward the Ranch. I found a 5 gallon bucket on the porch and grabbed it and made a dash back to my tent and covered the demon sprinkler before it could get my tent wet again. Now I made another run to see if I could turn up another bucket for the sprinkler Ruth held, I did. Back toward Ruth I ran and covered the sprinkler she throttled. That is when I began to shiver, I did not realize I had been hit and was quite wet. After drying off, we now had to try to get back to sleep. It was 11:00 pm. The sprinklers angrily squirted inside the buckets and promised to keep us awake with an awful noise, but sleep over came us and the morning brought its own challenge.
Upon awakening the first thing I noticed was how dark it still was. The smoke was on the ground and looked like thick fog. It was a very stimulated breakfast and pack up. We wanted to make some distance between us, and the fire. We did so and headed up river on the trail. This is a beautiful trail. A well managed trail and the holder of great views and vistas. The trail moved repeatedly from a hundred feet or so above the river to two thousand feet, this in reasonable grades and distances. About an hour out from the ranch we lost the smoke and our anxiety waned. I still looked over my shoulder all day to see if I could see the fire closing on us. The blackberries and blueberries urged us on with the offer of more and sweeter just up ahead. You already know I love berries.
Ham Radio had its place here for sure, as both Ruth and I are ham radio operators. In this canyon the cliffs and mountain tops rise up several thousand feet, in places in excess of three thousand. The canyon twists and turns making VHF and UHF a bit iffy for simplex. The communications officer placed a portable repeater on a hilltop and that made things easier and safer for us. I also carried my HF QRP SSB rig, that makes me feel like I can phone home when I need to!
At about 6 or 7 miles I could tell that my feet were not doing as well as I would have like but I kept it to myself. At lunch I doctored my feet. Ruth did as well, it was pretty hot and our feet had not had the toughening that many hikes would have given us. We pushed on looking for campers and those on the trail. We saw the sheriff’s boats when they came down the rivers pushing the rafters ahead of them. This was done under a threat that if they were found on the river after noon they would be fined. We waved and chatted best we could from several hundred feet above the river. We use our radios, that made things better. We thought we would go a few more miles, putting in about 10-12 today.
I started looking for good water and place for the HF antenna. The water was not an issue as the side creeks here were running cool and clean even for July. Finding 120 feet a level ground was another thing. Well not so much level as just not cliff. It seems about this time we were climbing a several mile long lift through a high rock wall section of the canyon. It was about 4:00 and I was ready to call it a day. Still not a good place so we pushed on and our feet gave us some trouble. I would have cried my feet hurt so bad but I had to SAR Boy up in front of Ruth. We finally found a place with a pretty creek and I put up the antenna. We got cleaned up, and made dinner, fixed our feet and collapsed.
The lack of smoke, the packs off, full stomach, feet fixed that was all it took, sleep fell on us like a ton of bricks.
The second day was a great day. We had another 12 miles to go and were eager to get on with it. I had my usual breakfast of instant oatmeal and coffee and packed up my gear. Ruth did the same and we were off about 8:00 am. We hiked in the cool of the morning and eat berries as they came and ended up with purple fingers and lips. Some of the black berries were the size of quarters, very good. We looked at the river and it took a bit of time for it to sink in. I was not sure what exactly was wrong and it began to bug me. I finally thought I knew what it was, I had a feeling that it was really about the river and it grew and was quit unusual. It was that the river was quiet, I heard only the birds, the babble of the water, the rush of the wind. There was no one yelling, no echoes from the canyon. I peered over the edge again and again to see and no one was there, no one. We were on a 30 mile stretch of the wild and scenic Rogue River and NO ONE was there but Ruth and myself. I began to smile and Ruth said “What is it”…I said “We are seeing this river as it was, as if this was 1000 years ago, there is no one here but you and me”. We stood for a few moments lost in a time and place that burned an image and a feeling impossible for me to verbalize or share, it was terrific.
We finally moved on down the trail. Many of the twist and turns in this place bring you out on to prominences the jut out over the river and the ground seems to fall straight down or even a little in and that gives you a unbelievable look at the river. We came to a point that looked out and I saw a bear on the other side of the river. We stopped. We looked. I was spell bound. I have seen dozens of bears in my life and all of them were moving away as fast as they could. This one did not know we were there and was just being a bear. About 3 or 4 years old not to big kinda gangly and goofy, it just sniffed and moved up into the rocks and back down and back up and around and down. It seemed to be looking for food or something. I watched and was thrilled at the sight. About 10 minutes or more. I said hello and good bye from our spot above the bear it seemed not to be concerned with my voice.
We stopped for lunch. We both had blistered feet. I fixed them the way I always do, bag balm and duct tape and we survived. We moved the rest of the day with purpose and did what we were tasked to do. The river was clear of campers and back packers. We signed out at the command post. Those special moments on the with a partner, the views, the drama of the fire and the peace of the trail will be with me forever